I’ve been thinking about identities lately. The way we see ourselves. The way others see us.
It all used to be so much easier. Back in high school, we were assigned particular descriptors that we, in turn, also stuffed into our sack like snow globes from Jackson Hole and called them our own. But they were no more, or no less unique than any other snow globe from Jackson Hole. We liked these identities because they were as much prescribed as they were chosen by our own known strengths and fears.
On my very first day of middle school I was the “kid from Kalamazoo that lived in a motel.” That’s all anyone knew about me. I also happened to be the tallest kid in class. Which made me stand out, if just a bit.
On my very first day of high school I was “the baseball kid from Detroit.” That’s all anyone knew about me. I played baseball and I hailed from Detroit. How they knew this about me without ever having spoke to me I’ll never know.
These initial impressions may or may not endure. Until the day I left middle school and moved to Pittsburgh, most people remembered that I’d lived in a motel. My house was closing, whatever. But the thing stuck. In addition to being the dorky jock that got along with most everyone.
High school was more cruel. People became more cruel. And I became more cruel to myself as a result. I hung out with the “stoners,” but I wasn’t a stoner. I wasn’t a jock because although I was good at sports, my best sport wasn’t until the spring. Plus the jocks were punks and slackers and I didn’t want to hang out with them. The preps and cool kids didn’t accept new applications. Therefore I settled into a wonderful little circle of friends connecting the geeks and the stoners. Life is just one big Venn Diagram. Labels are wonderful, aren’t they? The way we can corral everyone in our lives into neat packages.
Point is, I went from being a dorky, amiable jock to being a guy that didn’t fit. As a result I was an angry, out of sorts, depressed teenager.
So I switched schools. I went back to a private school with fewer kids and genres of people became microgenres. I was the baseball and movie guy. I wrote movie reviews for the paper and a friend and I started an early movies reviews website on that spanking new internet. We even had a feature in a Sunday Pittsburgh Post-Gazette. Movie guys. I watched a lot of movies. And I know a crapton too. Mandel and Patrick’s Movie Corner. We were featured on MTV’s Adam Curry’s entertainment page. True story. People used to consider my knowledge about movies extensive. Some might have called me an expert (though, it’s all relative to other 16-19 year olds).
The point of the rumble is this. Who are we now? Out in the real world? Do we even get to choose anymore? We could be twenty different things to twenty different people.
To one group I’m the dad that takes his daughter to school. And some of those people that know more about me might probably consider me the barely employed dad that takes his daughter to school because the wife has the big job. Oy. Others consider me a graphic designer because I do pro-bono stuff for a local non-profit. I’m sure some people consider me a writer. Others consider me a writer about music because of this site and my Twitter feed. If I’m lucky, my friends just see me as Jay.
But how do I see myself anymore? Father? Writer? Slacker? Coffee addict? Procrastinator? Compulsive smartphone checker? How far down the rabbit hole do we go before we just don’t like what we see anymore? I’d like to be “the prolific writer with two kids and a wife.” I think that might be nice. And I do write a lot. But I’m everywhere and nowhere at once. I’m churning out music reviews, Bond essays, fiction and creative non-fiction here and there. I’m copyediting and copywriting.
At heart, I know who I am, but do I have the courage to be that person in the real world? Or will it forever be a character that I’m more comfortable writing about, expressing on the page than I am living it. But then again, I suppose that’s a plight many writers must face. The notion that writing about regrets is easier than initiating real change. That writing more and more without ever really writing towards a goal is just another way to avoid the hard stuff. The stuff that, in your mind, really matters. If you’re even lucky to know what that is.
Then again, maybe I’ll just go back to being a movie guy. It was all just so much easier then. Let’s all do it for a week. Let’s go back to being that “guy” or “girl” we were in high school. As an experiment. I’m going to do nothing but watch movies and hit in the batting cage. This time we’ll do it without the teenage neurosis.
I’m not going to rage too much about this whole fiction snub for the Pulitzers… enough of that has been done, more earnestly, on Twitter and the Interwebs. But in case you hadn’t heard, the Pulitzer committee deemed no book of fiction worthy of the grand prize. Why? Because one book must win a majority of the vote. Which means that this could have been the best year for fiction in the history of the world but because the committee couldn’t largely agree on which earth-shattering tome belonged at the top of the heap nobody gets a trophy, and everyone gets parting gifts. Thanks for playing, here’s an assortment of cheeses and a cheap Bordeaux that may or may not taste like feet. Michael Cunningham and critics Maureen Corrigan and Susan Larson, the three-person fiction jury delivered the committee 3 books, down from the original 341 and that 18-person committee shat the bed. No 10,000 prize. No spotlight on excellence. No furthering the sales or expanding the readership of great literature. Instead we have this:
Fiction: no winner
The three snubbed nominees were Train Dreams by Denis Johnson, Swamplandia! by Karen Russell and The Pale King by the late, great David Foster Wallace. That’s right… one of the authors is farkin’ deceased and even that–even the thought of a final reward to one of the great writers and thinkers of the last metric crap ton of years–couldn’t push that 18-person committee to a final conclusion. I think I speak for every writer, of any genre, when I say “FIX IT.”
In the meantime, Pulitzer VIPs, while you’re off fixing a broken system that has done exactly the opposite of its intent, I will suggest a few ways by which you can settle these disputes in the future. I’m not merely going to point fingers. I’m a problem solver.
1. The Pulitzer Games.
You’re readers, right? I do have to clarify these days. Even if you’ve not read the Hunger Games, you’re knowledgeable of the premise. Drop your finalists into a North Carolina woods with their choice of analog weapon (bow and arrow, mace, whip, blow darts laced with frog poison, a boombox fueled by the collective works of Nickelback) and let them have at it. Televise it. Of course, since DFW can’t make it, that leaves two. Even better for you. Fewer paperwork, logistics, etc.
Edge: Karen Russell. She’s sprier by three decades, kinda sorta looks like a brainy version of Katniss and based on her book, figures to handle herself in a swamp, i.e. adverse conditions, with aplomb.
2. Today Show Cage Match
The ultimate in Today Show gimmick events. They’ve done weddings and weather. Now they can do hyper-educated MMA. In a dome-like cage. Lauer announces. Microphone drops from the ceiling of the studio. Ann Curry’s the ring girl in a sequined bikini and Roker referees (and he no longer requires vertical stripes!). I’m not necessarily suggesting Beyond Thunderdome rules. We’ll allow tapouts. But if you’re a young writer, do you give up on your wildest hopes and dreams just because of a few broken bones? Dizziness? Decaying consciousness? Hell no.
Edge: Denis Johnson. He’s never struck me as a dude that you wanted to corner. Quite frankly I’d be intimidated by sitting in a seat behind him on an airplane. WHATEVER YOU DO, DON’T KICK THE SEAT! He’s got those crazy eyes. Dude’s seen some things… I know. I’ve read Jesus’ Son.
3. Fiction Slamline
Sort of like a hybrid between Drumline, Step Up 3D and a Poetry Slam. Each author would take turns reciting passages from their fiction. No cheat sheets allowed, call and response style. One steps up, then the next, then the next. Meanwhile the crowd gets rowdy, fists pump, witty barbs are tossed about like popcorn. “Johnson writes in decidedly primitive stages of reflection!” or “She is the pimple of the age’s humbug!” The judges start nodding their head in appreciation and awe. DFW could attend in the form of a hologram. If Tupac can do it, so can David Foster Wallace.
Edge: Hologram David Foster Wallace. Brainy, dramatic and doo-ragged take this one, even from beyond the grave. His delivery might be a little wooden, but nobody could out-think DFW, even as a digital projection imitating life… in 3-D.
Let’s see. Final tally…. that’s one win for each of them. Shit. Oh well. I guess the Pulitzer committee got it right after all. And to think I just wasted everyone’s time with a trifle of an argument that amounted to nothing. There’s just no reasonable way to decide these writers’ fate. No way, indeed.