How to Become Immune to Bullshit
Dear Watson is The Faster Times’ new weekly advice column. To contact Watson anonymously, write to firstname.lastname@example.org
I’m an aspiring writer in Chicago and I just graduated from college. To make a long story short: while I was in school I had teachers, deadlines, and other students as sources of motivation and inspiration. And even now I can usually force myself to be productive; work ethic isn’t an issue for me. But lately I’ve been trying to replace the social community that I lost when I graduated from college with readings, open mic nights, book parties, etc…. and I just can’t believe how much bullshit I’ve run into! At first the small talk and networking was the worst of it, but now I’ve come to feel that the pretentious, precious, all-around-unbearable writing is even worse. I’m starting to question whether I even want to be a writer, if this “scene” is what awaits me in the best-case scenario. I’ve thought about moving to some remote place and working on my stuff in isolation, but 1) I can’t afford to and 2) I’m pretty social and I think I might shoot myself before I got significant work done. I still love books. And I still love writing. But how am I supposed to deal withs the depressing reality of “the literary world?”
Unemployed and Drowning in BS
Boy can I ever relate. There’s nothing worse than seeing the one thing you care most about sullied by bullshit. It’s somehow much worse when it’s someone or something you care about — seeing your favorite writer posturing at a reading, seeing a love-interest schmooze, hearing your favorite authors name-dropped at a party. It just makes you want to run, to die, to give up on other people forever.
But you can’t give up on people, because there are people out there that you’ll relate to, people that make it worthwhile to wade through everyone else to find them. And you can’t give up on literature, either, because you love it too much, it’s too important to you. So what do you do about the bullshit?
There isn’t a single answer, but a few months ago I had an experience that gave me some insight. I was at a low point in my own relationship with the “literary scene” myself when a friend of mine called me up and invited me to a poetry slam. My BS-radar twitched the moment she made the proposition: it was an open mic, and she wasn’t sure who’d be reading; it was at a tropical-themed bar that had never hosted a poetry event before; it was late on a Wednesday night. To top it off, I had to work the next day. But something about her voice persuaded me. She’s the kind of giddy, magnetic person who makes things exciting wherever she goes, and she was in a particularly good mood that night, tossing out pipe-dream plans, goading me out of my lethargic state like a kid with a stick. I figured that there was still a chance that the slam might be good, but that even if it wasn’t, we’d probably have fun anyway.
As it turned out, it was a good thing that I hadn’t expected much — the slam wasn’t just bad; it was horrible. It was the worst one I’d ever been to by a long shot. There was one guy in particular who kept hogging the mic and “improvising” free-form, non-rhyming lyrics literally describing the people in the room, describing himself not knowing what to describe, even describing my friend and I trying to suppress our laughter in the corner. And it lasted forever.
We were in stitches by the end. “That was the worst poetry I’ve ever heard,” I gasped, when we finally spilled out into the street with the rest of the crowd. “It wasn’t even like a bad horror movie that’s sort of awesome. It was totally unredeemable.”
“What are you talking about, dude?” My friend asked, punching me genially as she killed her last plastic glassful of wine. “That wasn’t poetry.”
And suddenly, everything was clear. I saw what its as that she had that made me feel invulnerable to boredom and bullshit when I was with her; I saw what she knew that I’d lost track of.
In classical formal logic, there’s a paradox called “No True Scotsman” that’s based on an old (if slightly offensive) joke. It goes like this: A Scotsman walks into a hotel bar in the U.S. and the bartender asks him what he wants. “What do you have?” he asks. The bartender responds, “Do you like whiskey?” “Do I like whiskey!” the Scotsman retorts. “No Scotsman doesn’t like whiskey!” The man sitting next to him gives him the stink-eye and says, “I’m a Scotsman and I don’t like whiskey.” “Well,” the first Scotsman says proudly, “No true Scotsman doesn’t like whiskey.”
No True Scotsman is considered to be a logical fallacy, a way of begging the question; it allows the man to retain his notion of Scottish identity in the face of contradictory evidence by altering the premises instead of the conclusion. But in the real world, where we make false assumptions all the time, I think that logic is more valid — in fact, I think it’s critically important to the question of inspiration.
What my friend recognized was that the word “poetry” is just a proxy, just a way of identifying something that poetry lovers all recognize instinctively but whose parameters are impossible to define. And although the freestyle non-rhyming-rap guy might have felt that he was producing poetry, it wasn’t real poetry to my friend because poetry was something, for her, that she identified by the way it made her feel. Poetry was something she recognized with her gut, not by the form it took. And that made her absolutely immune to bad poetry. Because for her, “bad poetry” wasn’t only uncommon; it was an oxymoron. Bad poetry held no threat to good poetry because it had nothing to do with good poetry.
You’re just out of college, Drowning; you’re a little young to give up. Instead, see if you can divorce what you love about literature from the sell-out scene you seem to have found yourself in. Follow the scent of good writing when you catch a whiff, and toss the rubbish without thinking twice. Even if you hear your favorite writers spouting bullshit, try to distinguish between the work you love and the imperfect people who may have made it. Draw and redraw those borders in order to keep the things you love safe. But hold on to what you know — hold on to what you love, what you recognize with your heart rather than your head, what made you want to be a writer in the first place. You can’t sell out as long as you still have that.
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