How to Not Be a Conservative

I’m going to start by making two lists. 1: Things that were better in the past than they are in the present. And 2: Things I’m passionately and proudly conservative about. I’m doing this against the old adage[1] that everyone gets more conservative as they get older.

Things That Were Better In The Past

  • To get the obvious ones out of the way: air travel, MTV, public funding of schools, being middle class, union membership, the social safety net in general, access to fetal abortion procedures
  • Food ones: Coke before high fructose corn syrup; Honeycomb cereal, which used to made from oats and now, of course, it’s mostly corn; and McDonald’s pies, which used to be fried (like their French fries) in beef tallow, but after the fat/cholesterol scare of the early 90s the fries are fried in vegetable oil (arguably not better for you) and the pies are now um … baked.
  • Terrestrial radio
  • The rate of people having sex in their teen years
  • Ziploc Food Packaging: Have you noticed that food packaging now places its ziploc opening not at the top of the bag, making it perfect for pouring, but the front of it? Like this? [JPG] And they no longer go all the way across, so now whatever you try to pour out inevitably gets partially caught by the top of the bag, and good luck emptying it when you’re done.

Things I’m Passionately Conservative About

  • Chex-Mix recipes: leave your onion powders and bagel chips in the pantry
  • Cocktail recipes: no fun ‘martinis’ please
  • Neighborhood development / new construction: I’m no NIMBY, but I am anxious about the Castro Theater
  • News media: we should all perma-subscribe to home delivery of local print newspapers written and edited by well paid journalists
  • The ‘FA’ in the MFA degree: that is, I’ve only by demand, and reluctantly, brought more and more practical / professional matters into my artsy-fartsy teaching
  • Slang and idioms: always happy to say ‘that’s awesome’ over ‘that slaps’ or whatever, and don’t get me started on the phrase ‘hits different‘.

*

It’s hard to see the news every day and not feel that things are getting worse. I want to remain honest and vigilant about what’s happening in this country to the rights of people, and to democracy in general, but I also acknowledge that Things were better before is one of the seeds of fascism. The trick is figuring out (a) whether that’s true (or whether it’s being used to justify hate / genocide toward the disenfranchised), and (b) what steps to take to make things better in the future.

That seems to be the urgent drive: if things are getting worse, how do we stop the worse from getting even worse? Here’s Lauren Berlant:

[T]he present moment increasingly imposes itself on consciousness as a moment in extended crisis, with one happening piling on another. The genre of crisis is itself a heightening interpretive genre, rhetorically turning an ongoing condition into an intensified situation in which extensive threats to survival are said to dominate the reproduction of life.

Key phrase = ‘ongoing condition’. The nonlinear movements of progress and decline are part of our permanent history. For Berlant, the crisis of the moment is a matter of perspective, and the narratives we choose to interpret our moment in history. To see this in example, let me tell you a quick story from college.

On any random night in the apartment I shared with friends, my pal Mark asked me and Casey one of those What ifs: If you could have grown up during any decade in the 20th century, which would you choose? I don’t recall what Casey said, but having recently watched The Ice Storm I likely said the 1970s, enchanted by a country fully disillusioned by the corruption of a GOP president.

Mark said the 1950s. His reasons are lost to memory, but we had a nice friendly bickering about it. Everything was so white bread and awful! (Had I recently watched Pleasantville?) I didn’t see it at the time, but in looking back on this memory, I accept that the 1950s could have been a perfectly blissful decade—for a certain demographic.

The 1950s were a nightmare for queers. It was a time when abortions were illegal and women, when allowed into the workplace, were treated mostly as furniture. Jim Crow laws were solidly on the books. Straight white men probably had a lovely time.

When I think about things that were better before, I try to ask (a) if it was better for everyone, all demographics, and (b) if its being better required the exclusion of one or more of those demographics. Airline travel used to be luxurious, yes, but also way too expensive for most people. College used to be cheaper, and while much of the criminal costs of college have come from a bloat of overpaid administrators, those positions have also been created by demand. The demographics of college campuses have become far more diverse than they were in the 70s and 80s, especially now that the U.S. has decided every ‘good’ job requires a college degree, which has created a need for psychological services, disability services, career placement centers, study skills training, campus life coordinators, and any other number of associate vice provosts trained in these things faculty—who used to run colleges—aren’t.

If colleges mostly served prep school graduates and other already-well-off students, they’d be smaller and cheaper. It can’t be what we want to conserve.

*

Somewhere recently, I came across the feed of something called ‘The Cultural Tutor’, which had some viral tweets about the death of detail and color in contemporary design:

The examples provided make a convincing case that ‘we’ have given up, or lost something that used to make our world better, or at least more interesting to look at. The nostalgist in me was quickly won over by the argument, if The Cultural Tutor had an argument (they didn’t exactly have a cause, or a narrative on what has happened over time). Then I got to this part:

Consider some reframings:

‘Default minimalist desig[n] strips all identity away from things.’ >>> ‘Default minimalist design maximizes the identities that can engage with it.’

‘Somebody might not like a detail (read: character) so there can be no details.’ >>> ‘Somebody’s use of an object might be impaired by a detail (read: aestheticism) so details should come under scrutiny for utility.’

To be fair, not all of the examples in the thread involve civic spaces or public utilities (and to be sure, it’s hard to see how ornament on a bollard threatens ADA accessibility needs), but I was struck by this comment to the thread:

There’s a not very good story by Vonnegut titled ‘Harrison Bergeron’[2], which presents a dystopia where every form of excellence in humans beyond the norm is forcedly hindered by the state. So like folks who are fast runners get, like, weights on their ankles or something. I forget the specifics, but even as a teenager I recall realizing this was some Ayn Rand–style alarmist bullshit.

It’s a partisanly conservative complaint that any work we might do to make this world more accessible to others, or to generally benefit more of us, will lead only to the death of innovation and crushed human spirits or whatever. Or, as Colleen has it above, nothing will be unique or exceptional if we try to give everyone equal treatment.

How to not be a conservative? Avoid seeing the less equal as a necessary sacrifice to your understanding of greatness.[3]

*

But how to not be a piner for the past, is what I mostly wanted to write about here. Another college story, set in the same apartment: A group of us was trying to figure out what to do on a weeknight, and someone suggested we go see a movie. Me, the film major, was up for it, and in trying to figure out what we might go see, I asked the group, ‘Is there anything new and good?’—something recently released that was getting good reviews, I meant.

Somebody—let’s call him Andy, because maybe that was his name, but he was a friend of a friend—repeated what I said with a laugh. Then at some point over the next week I saw an email he’d sent around, and he’d changed the quote in his signature: ‘Is there anything new and good? –Dave Madden’

In middle age now, I’m if anything being pushed farther left by the growing injustices of my time, but I’m trying to avoid becoming that guy I became when quoted out of context. In my 20s, I loved the new specifically for its sake of being new. I was also far less comfortable in my skin and had far less of an understanding of who I was separate from others, so as much as I felt like a nonconformist I happily adopted the forms of nonconformity my friends were taking on. Because that was what community meant.

Now I’m older man who readily dismisses Taylor Swift and trap music and TikTok. And when I do that, I feel at a remove from ‘most people’, given the wild popularity of the above. Hating on the new, pining after the past, puts me in a form of isolation—it’s the negative inflection of the feeling of being self-aware, or -satisfied, or -sufficient.[4]

The difference, it seems, is community. How not to become a conservative as you get older seems vitally to involve staying part of as diverse a community as possible. It’s less about conforming to the Swifties you might find among you, it’s about having people in your life whose differing tastes you respect and allow.

Translate that to the political stage and we might stop pining for this long past of dunking on each other.



Footnotes    (↵ returns to text)
  1. Which maybe only applied to the Boomer generation.
  2. Which I first learned of by watching the movie of the same name starring 100%-in-his-prime Sean Astin.
  3. Which reminds me of a better sci-fi story from Ursula K. Le Guin, ‘The Ones Who Walk Away from Omelas’, which posits that all prosperity and wealth requires someone else’s suffering.
  4. A colleague recently told me that I’m a Leo rising.

Shenny: A Thing for Drummers

Shenny: An Inbox Magazine

Greetings from Barely Holding It Together. The monkeypox outbreak is getting worse, dangerously so, and cronyism and corruption are ongoing in San Francisco. Summer is ending, which in this city means hot (for us) temperatures are coming, in a city with no air conditioning because—historically—’we haven’t needed it.’ And each year it’s a reminder that the days of no heat advisories are over.

It also means the semester is about to start, and this marks my 4th (and ostensibly last) year as academic director of the MFA program I teach in. It’s a hard job, in that I have some semesters 90+ students whose learning and academic success I’m somewhat responsible for, and like all hard jobs it’s been triply hard to do well during a pandemic and its aftermath. 

It’s in my nature amid any disruption to work to find some stability. Let’s make a joke to ease the tension in the air. Let’s solve this sudden problem on our own before checking to see if others also find it a problem. My co-director and I have worked overtime to keep the ship steady, so to speak, and 4 years in, as disruptions keep coming, that’s starting to feel like denial. Or that classic definition of insanity.

When I’m at my best, stormy seas are a thrill. Change is not just coming, it’s here. Chaos is a creative constant. These are not those days. And yet, I do have in-laws coming to town. And Beyoncé has a new record out. And a new issue of Shenny. Four months in and making this still feels like a privilege.

Yours:
Dave


Endorsements

1. The word ‘gal’
The other day, my Dad asked if my partner was ‘still working for that woman?’ (N.’s an assistant to a philanthropist in town), and even though he didn’t intend aggression, I heard it. It’d be unnatural for most men I know, myself included, to ask ‘Is he still working for that man?’ ‘Guy’ is the usual go to. As I learned in my 20s to update from ‘girl’ to ‘woman’ in referring to those gendered female, I’ve since learned to go for ‘gal’. Yes, both ‘guy’ and ‘gal’ affirm the gender binary (if you’ve got a good single form of the word ‘folks’ I’m all ears), but I love the idea of referring to folks in mixed-gender groups as ‘gals’. Hey gals listen up. Gals are great. Let’s all be gals.

2. Nathan Fielder’s The Rehearsal (HBOMax)
If you’ve ever heard me tell an anecdote or ask for a favor, odds are I practiced that conversation in advance of seeing you—at least my half of it. I’m not a comfortable liver in the moment. The Rehearsal is a show where Nathan Fielder engineers hyperdetailed spaces for people like me to practice at their desires. In the pilot, a guy wants to come clean to one gal about a lie he’s let go on too long among their trivia group. Fielder reconstructs on a sound stage the very bar they do trivia in, and hires an actor to study the friend and act out her role, over and over for weeks, until the guy feels prepared to talk with her IRL.

That’s a cute show. What makes The Rehearsal a brilliant show is that Fielder himself has hired an actor to play the guy, and recreated the guy’s apartment on a sound stage, and rehearsed, over and over, their initial meeting. At every moment the boundaries between real life and performed life are dissolved. Nobody on the show looks great, and that’s either cringe-inducing, or comforting, depending on your outlook. The show indulges some Didionically cruel indictments of its subjects, but Fielder’s whole alien-studying-humans gestalt elevates it to something that feels, at least to this watcher, deeply moving. Watch it as a comedy. Watch is as a tragedy. Watch it as a horror, often. Lately, I’ve been watching it as a romance between the people we feel stuck as, and the people we dream of someday being. No show in the history of TV has ever dramatized that difference as hilariously and gut-wrenchingly as this one.


How To Write About Other People

Speaking of being Didionically cruel, she famously wrote how writers are always selling somebody out. We take, is what she means. We take and use, and us nonfiction writers leave the people we take from called out usually by name. The first time this happened to me was in a poem written, back in college, by my friend Mark. It’s titled ‘Set to Flame’, and you should know that at the time my greatest ambition was to make movies:

Thoughts come to him in a funnel, never finding a way out.
The wind rushes in through the screen, grimy with the world,
& pours over his thin body, his hollow eye-sockets
as his fingers curl & wither with frustration, the way film does
when set to flame. He thinks how cool his life would be
if it was directed by David Lynch, finds himself
listening for eerie music, the promise of something
to come. Thinks of biology class in tenth grade,
a cow's fat red tongue lying on a styrofoam tray.
Poking it with his incisor, stupidly awaiting
a reaction. Thinks of Rod Roddy from 'The Price is Right'
shouting Denny Collins from Fairfax, Virginia, come oooon down!
He pictures kids on pilgrimage to the shrine of Bob Barker.
The gaudy lights, the smiles from Bob's lovely assistants.
He hopes they let him play Plinko. He stares at the ceiling
until late. He wants to reach inside & pull his intestines
& everything else out through his mouth, like gooey strings
of film, wants to watch it all curl & wither.

I read this poem unexpectedly, flipping through the collection Mark handed copies of to close friends. I didn’t know he’d written it, but I recognized myself immediately, and the first feeling I had, my heart racing faster as I read each line, was how happy I was to be seen. Thought of. This was matched immediately by how nervous I was to be recorded, in as much posterity as can be assumed from an undergraduate poetry class portfolio. Was this who I ‘really’ was, or was this how I was presenting myself to others? And what was the difference?

If I’ve been written about since, nobody’s told me. Now I’m on the other side of the selling-out, writing about friends, family, and my partner for my own gain. This came up in places of my essay ‘Behold Us Two Boys Sitting Together’ (not online, alas), where I wrote about the dangers in looking, in others, for reflections of yourself—or more broadly in rendering others as secondary characters in your own narrative.

One of the many challenges in memoir writing.

Every time you turn a person in your life into a character, no matter how round, you diminish them. Distill is the verb we writing teachers prefer to use. Find the revealing detail the renders their essence etc. etc. I was, I knew, more than a neurotic (closeted) college kid wishing someone would magically make him and his life more interesting, but reading Mark’s poem brought that aspect of my life to the forefront, and forced me to see it as someone else did, using the very words with which they’d painted the portrait. I was suddenly not in control of some truth about me, and I’d never felt that kind of dispossessed before.

I try to remember that feeling every time I write about someone in my life who I am—and would like to stay—close to. NF writers have all kinds of tips on how to minimize the collateral damage of writing about other people. My favorite, from Terese Marie Mailhot, is that you should always try to include one detail or aspect of their character that the person would like to see in themselves. (Thanks to Mike Scalise for drawing my attention to that great tip.) I also like Joy Castro‘s notion—from Family Trouble, her anthology of NF craft texts about this topic—about using other characters always and only to help answer your memoir’s central questions. ‘If an incident, detail, or family story contributed in some way to the answering of one or both of [my] questions, then it went onto the page. If it didn’t, I didn’t even draft it.’

Here’s my own policy, when I’ve written about somebody who’s still in my life, and whom I want to stay a part of my life: If I’ve written something that I haven’t talked with them about, or disclosed in any way, then they get to read what I’ve written before I publish. If what I feel or remember is true, even to me, I want them to be the first to hear it. Telling others first feels, to me, like a betrayal.

I wasn’t hurt when I read Mark’s poem all those years ago. I fully recall being flattered and happy to be written about. Which is the lesson I tell students over and over. We have, especially in adulthood, so few ways we get to feel special. Being written about is often a shock, but it’s also one small way we get to live beyond ourselves.

What Compassionate Hedonism Looks Like

The other night, a friend and I were heading to a happy hour hangout at one of the most expensive restaurants in San Francisco—a detail I open with because this post is trying to understand some things about gluttony, restraint, money, pleasure, and virtue. We were equally wary and excited. ‘For the record, I’m dressed like I’m about to go mow the lawn,’ I texted her beforehand, and she said, ‘For what they charge they should give us clothes to eat in.’

They did not give us such clothes, but nor did they seem to sneer at my raglan T advertising a vintage jockstrap company. We ordered cocktails and talked of hedonism, my friend telling a story of someone at a writers conference who announced, amid a group discussion about bars and favorite drinks, that she felt ‘Othered’ as a person in sobriety. My friend wondered about the rise, lately, in sobriety / restraint / asceticism pleasures in the U.S. A related question: how much of the war against smoking cigarettes in the last few decades has been about public health, and how much about another victory for puritanism—defined loosely as the belief that the purpose of having a body is to keep it ‘clean’ and ‘holy’?

I imagine all of us have our own answers to that question. I’ve got a number of friends and former students who are sober, and I have every reason to believe they’re happier. I’m not any kind of authority on the reasons behind that form of doing without, but I am curious about some things that I’m here to try to work out. Namely:

  • What was the exact nature of the conflict between those people at the writers conference?
  • At what point do your habits, behaviors, and commitments become an identity you hold up alongside or against others?
  • In making heroes out of hedonists, in siding every time to the pursuit of pleasure and excess over restraint, am I indicating something of my overall values, or is it just because pleasure is easy and I can’t handle difficult feelings?

More nights than not, I drink more than the doctor-recommended 3oz of spirits. Am I drinking too much, or am I allowing myself a pleasure for its own sake? That seems to be the basis of hedonism, an ethos that seeks to maximize pleasure in its isolated form, meaning that the pleasures we get from donating our time or money to a cause we believe in, or the mild euphoria I feel after swimming a mile first thing in the morning—these are not the pleasures of the hedonist. These are ancillary pleasures.

Sometimes I feel this is the point of life: to ever increase one’s ongoing pleasure without causing increased pain in others. But pleasure has a cost. Booze at a certain amount does things to my digestive system I pay for later. All drugs and consumable vices carve themselves on the body in some fashion, and so we have the motto of temperancers everywhere: All Things In Moderation.

Temperance and moderation have its own pleasures, I imagine. But don’t feel. That is, when I provide myself temperate pleasures—when I say no to a(nother) vicious thing I enjoy—that pleasure is tinged with Good Boy status. I feel like I’m in school hoping for the gold star on my ditto. What I still, in my 40s, have not yet found a way to do is undertake and enjoy temperate pleasures for myself, and not for the approval of some (ghostly, but pressing) judge.

Hedonistic pleasures likewise carry a naughtiness to them. Oh this is really gonna piss my parents off.

*

Let me change gears here.

Sex Addicts Anonymous has this phrase they use: Keep working your circles. It refers to the central understanding of sobriety in SAA. Sex is part of being alive, and so abstinence can’t look the way it does in AA, say. Much of the early work a new SAA initiate goes through with their sponsor involves sorting their sex practices and behaviors into two circles: the Inner Circle, which holds all the things they did that brought them to SAA, all the stuff they feel bad about after; and the Outer Circle, which holds all the sex stuff that makes them feel good.

This is a psychosis, and here’s why: Everyone’s circles in SAA are different. Hiring sex workers can be in one person’s inner circle, because it’s what brought them to SAA, while it’s in another person’s outer circle, because they feel ‘addicted’ to masturbating alone to porn, and hiring sex workers is a great way to engage their sexuality with another person. Sex with sex workers, then, is neither good nor bad, it’s something in SAA that causes some of its members shame.

AA has the chemical process of addiction to base its work around. SAA has the emotional process of shame. If shame marks the boundary between the sex you feel good about and bad about, your troubled relationship to sex will not be improved by stuffing that shame into a closet. Sorting your circles accepts that shame is an augur, a useful tool. Let me accept and trust my shame to better have the sex I want, says the temperate SAAer.

But why not accept the sex you want to have to better understand shame and its effects?

When I asked that question and saw in its answer a far deeper understanding and acceptance of myself, I left SAA.

*

Another way of relating the above to the topic at hand: What does it take for someone to put every sex practice under the sun in their outer circle? (That’s the good one, confusingly; let’s just move on from the fact that SAA makes one’s ‘Inner Circle’ a thing to be avoided, bucking all idiom trends.) What happens to your identity after you dissolve the boundary, vis-a-vis your vice, between yes and no, have and have-not?

I said earlier that the point of life seemed to be increasing pleasure without increasing pain, and yes I see in that balancing act sneaky temperance waving at me, but I’m noting here the pain and harm side of all this. What makes hedonists chiefly gross figures in our myths? I’m thinking here of Des Esseintes, or Midas, or even Hedonismbot:

It’s likely a failure of my imagination this morning, forgetting some hedonists of humble means, but the key factor seems to be money. As I said before, hedonism costs—and more than the health and well-being of the hedonist’s hungover body. Vices aren’t free, and so the lesson we teach over and over again is that hedonism will lead to corruption as absolutely as absolute power. Decadence. Human trafficking. Hunting ‘the most dangerous game’.

A more everyday example is the city I live in. San Francisco—at least in terms of climate and landscapes, but also in terms of employment levels and social services—is a pleasureful place to live. For some. Creating and maintaining that pleasure requires a workforce too underpaid to afford to live among it, especially since San Francisco opted in on becoming a bedroom community for tech workers employed elsewhere. So when you go out to eat, there’s always the question of what has it cost the person who made your food for you to eat it at this price you’re willing to pay?

Which is why I was happy to pay the high prices at Che Fico, which recently added a 10% service charge to every dine-in check—paid in addition to, not in lieu of, the standard tip. Tips get distributed among the whole kitchen staff. Line cooks there reportedly make $72,000 a year.

Maybe there’s a thing called Compassionate Hedonism that continues to seek as its core ethos the increase of pleasure, but does so in a way that understands the sources of that pleasure and simultaneously minimizes any ancillary pain or harm. In this formulation, we can bring hedonism in among the other virtues, which—if you believe Montaigne—are found only through some form of pain:

[V]irtue presupposes difficulty and opposition, and cannot be exercised without a struggle. That is doubtless why we can call God good, mighty, bountiful, and just, but we cannot call him virtuous: his works are his properties and cost him no struggle.

from ‘On Cruelty’

So maybe hedonism is just another way we chase after holiness.

Shenny: A Fight Over the Heating Pad

Shenny: An Inbox Magazine

Like you, maybe, I’m worried about Monkeypox. My concern is less over contracting it personally—though that fear exists—than watching what it might do to our community.

Monkeypox is not an STI. It spreads through contact with a person’s body or bed linens or used towel or previously worn sweater, say. You could give it to your mom. But it also spreads through what the CDC calls ‘respiratory secretions’ while kissing, and it spreads through the kinds of sex where your naked body is in contact with another naked body. The latest numbers I could find show that 98 percent of cases, as you’ve likely heard, involve men who have sex with men.

Our community.

It’s been said that MSM are promiscuous. This isn’t itself a problem (nothing wrong with sluts), but I prefer to think we’re just better than most at having sex with others. More curious and generous. I believe this because I agree with the CDC that one of the ways to reduce stigma is to use positive language and inclusive we/us pronouns. 

Would that everyone in our community felt the same. Already I’ve seen online gays righteously shaming, with you/they pronouns, the people brave enough to post pics of their infections and tell their story. You knew the risks and now you want sympathy? is the refrain, and it breaks my heart to see such intra-queer hate, especially when M.T. Greene’s handlers are already using this crisis to repeat the lie that homosexuals are pedophiles.

Sex shames so many of us, even the shameless. It won’t be the last time you hear it from me. Whether or not you’re a fellow MSM, this global health emergency affects us all. If you, like me, are worried about Monkeypox, ask your local officials to secure more vaccines.

Yours:
Dave


Endorsements: Writing Tools Edition

1. Roget’s International Thesaurus
Someone I knew in grad school liked to claim that using a thesaurus was cheating, because writers should only use words they’re familiar with. Which like: good luck growing as an artist, but back then I heeded all kinds of silly Thou Shalt Nots. Then I went to a residency which provided on my enormous dinner table of a desk a copy of Roget’s International Thesaurus. It baffled me; you had to look up a word twice: first in the index in the back, and then under the heading number it gave, because this Roget’s, the original Roget’s, groups words according to ideas. So 343 COMMUNICATION is followed by 344 UNCOMMUNICATIVENESS, then 345 SECRECY, then 346 CONCEALMENT. Each of those concepts has dozens of words in subheadings like veilambushsecret passage. Why I love the Intl. Roget’s is that I’m never confident that the word I’m looking up is even the right one, and in its ingenious semantic organization I can look around the page and watch shades of meaning shift like in a color picker. The paperback is 1200 pages and weighs 3 pounds, and you better believe I packed it for Santa Monica last month.

2. The Uni-Ball 207 Signo Ultra-Micro Retractable Pen w/ Blue Ink
Upfront warning: I think these pens are being discontinued, which makes this endorsement all the more urgent. If your handwriting, like mine, looks like a squashed bug on the page, one thing that can help is to crispen up your line, and the Uni-Ball 207 Signo Ultra-Micro Retractable is the thinnest (.38mm) line I’ve seen on a gel pen. Behold:

In the last two months, a colleague and then an aunt-in-law asked to borrow a pen from me and then both asked to keep it. It converts people is what I mean. Two caveats: if you keep the pen at all times in a pants pocket, the retractable feature will sometimes activate the tip when you sit and stain your pants; the point is so ultramicro that it can tear through thinner sheets of paper if you, like me, grip your pen in a fist clenched as though for a fight. So go easy, and act now before they’re gone. (They also make it in black ink, but I’d sooner wear a MAGA hat than write in black ink.)


Who Wants To Read A Book on Sex & Shame?

Some days my answer for this is, ‘Nobody, dummy. Quit writing about your boring problems.’ (This is part of my process.) Other days, I’m like, ‘Everyone’s got hangups, right?’ Lately, I’ve been thinking about this demographically. That is: who will be my audience, if this book ever gets published?

Before the book reaches (let’s hope) a wide audience, it has to reach, or at least engage, a very narrow audience of (1) my agent, and (2) any editor she tries to sell it to. Who are those people? Here are some recent (2019) findings, compiled by Lee & Low, the largest multicultural children’s book publisher in the U.S.:

The lack of diversity in publishing is an old problem that I hope—thanks in part to the good work of Lee & Low—is getting better. Another old problem is sophistic* white men (and their supporters) lamenting the lack of interest in their books amid the imperative to diversify the field. What I’m writing about today is the image we often keep in front of us as we write: the inevitable gate and its keepers.

I wrote the taxidermy book this way: What do editors need me to do to see that my book has a throughline? I wrote two proposals for a book on standup this way: What do I need to include for editors to see this book can reach a broad audience? I don’t know that I gendered or raced those editors at the gate (and for the record, the taxidermy book’s editor was another gay man), but then again neither of those books were especially queer.

When writing, as I have been these past few years, about gay sex, and childhood gay sex, and public gay sex, and perverted gay fantasies, I’ve imagined the faces of those at the gate. Sometimes they look disgusted. Sometimes their eyes are rolled, bored as hell. Often, these images make me pause and rethink my wording, or the images I’m using. I change ‘dick’ to ‘penis’ and then to ‘genitals’ and then I cut it out of the sentence entirely.

Some years ago, in Finland, I felt sick and stuck and unable to recall why I wanted to write this book. I’d brought on my sabbatical travels the school photos of myself from the years I was writing about, had them lined up on my writing desk, to keep me in the right headspace:

I looked in the eyes of each of those boys, and I felt all the old sadnesses return. The regret of being closeted. The fear of being truly seen. I wanted to go back in time and tell those boys they weren’t alone, and they weren’t disgusting, no matter what bullshit messages they’d picked up about themselves.

That’s when I saw my true audience: the boys I used to be. I couldn’t travel back in time, but I could send a book out into the future, where I knew it would find other people ashamed and confused about who they are—whether that was queer kids in terrorist states that deny them education, or adults stuck in compulsive sex habits they hate themselves for.

Our community.

I think of them when those gatekeepers’ faces pop up. The gatekeepers can wait. I’ve got more interesting people to write for.

* I found this word using Roget’s, from the feeling that my original choice, ‘disingenuous’, wasn’t right. (Also, my apologies for so much linking in this newsletter to garbage tweets.)