I have just this moment finished reading Off the Road, the autobiography of Carolyn Cassady, where she tells in unrelenting detail tales of life with her writer husband Neal, novelist Jack Kerouac, and poet Allen Ginsberg in their prime, when their chief objective was ripping shit up, putting it back together, tearing it down again, and then gracefully elucidating the glory of it all just when they were about to become too insufferable to withstand any longer. It’s a fascinating book, not just because of her observations — as the most lucid, sane pseudo-participant, which was no great feat really — but also to see how the trio was a pack, the boys, like-minded in the important ways, fundamentally distinct in the tragic ones. The three of them pushed each other, farther, into the gorgeous nether of madness and chaos and beauty, and back again. They were each other’s muses, and burdens, and inspirations, and anchors. They struggled together. And it seems like they never really questioned themselves. But they did, because they must.
There’s something wonderful about the notion of a pack, particularly for literary folks. Who among us has not felt that our friends, ourselves included, are somehow the most enthralling people on the planet whose peculiarities and eccentricities must be chronicled for future generations to understand and appreciate? This is why we have friends. They’re interesting. I have met people in this world whom I would have thought it impossible to exist in real life. And yet, there they are.
These are the people we want to throw all caution to the proverbial wind with, the people with whom we just want to jump in a car and do something crazy. We just want to experience life with them, record their perceptions, expand on our own, try to make some sense of this constant pandemonium that swirls endlessly, find the absolute peace and splendour we all perceive is out there, somewhere, somehow, it has to be, right? And we love people just as nuts as us. People who see the world the way we do; as scary, beautiful, enchanting, aloof, full of awe, something to be tackled and dealt with, however we deem fit.
Man, I love these friends. Something about them makes me feel like I’m a part of something bigger than myself, that we are a troupe, that we are sages, seeing the world like no one else does. I’ve had many of them over the years, and just thinking of them gets me fired up. It’s the one aspect all my closest and dearest friends – male and female – have in common; they are all seekers. They are introspective, questioning, inspiring, alive. They are wild bulls of souls, unleashed, rampaging onward, trying to find the meaning, the truth.
But I am romanticising them, I realise now, as I sit here watching the bright, waxing moon. They were all those things. They are all those things. But they are not just all those things. They are real people. At the end of the day, Neal Cassady had to make a living. We live in a different time now. My friends are not in school anymore. They are grownups. They are married, or they are getting married, or they are worried about the mortgage, or the direction and financial security of their companies. I blinked, and they all became regular people. Somewhere down the line, they saw where they fit in in the universe, and they adjusted accordingly. They saw one path leading to mental destruction, and they chose the other, healthy, wise one. It is to be a visionary to question this whole existence; it is to be an adult to shut up about it and make sure the bills are paid and the trains run on time.
And I am still out there, adrift, wondering which way to go.
Can I simply be? I wrote a Facebook message to a group of old friends the other day, one of those impersonal, hey-look-you-were-included-on-my-closest-friends-list type of things. It was a pithy little comment on how I was doing something particularly domesticated that evening, full of self-mocking and look-at-what-it’s-come-to faux irony. One friend responded to the list saying, somewhat tongue-in-cheek, that I was right, David had become a blissful little suburbanite, he’s going for walks and cooking and watching the Olympics and buying Nike and voting and all the things you’re not supposed to do if you’re the outsider doggedly resisting social mores. It was funny and played into my joke. Then another friend responded to him, hitting a little closer to home:
(I’m paraphrasing) “Which do you think he likes more? Being domesticated, or the fact that we’re all sitting here talking about him being domesticated?” And he was right, of course. I’d always enjoyed being the little ugly duckling that everyone looked at as the peculiar one. His words disturbed me greatly, because he was so right. Did I really still want to be that guy? Why didn’t I shut up and play ball, live like a normal person? Nothing all that special about me. Nothing all that special about any of us.
Another example to prove my rapidly shifting point: I was talking to another friend who knows me as well as anyone the other evening. She met me several years ago here in London, at one of my many self-congratulatory birthday parties. She was a friend of a friend, so on, and I was still relatively new to the city, not that long removed from island life. That birthday evening, I was the new guy in town, telling my tales of the Caribbean, of ex-girlfriends and beaches and journalism adventures and self-doubt and romance and transcendence and insanity and the loss of God and anything else that would make it more likely this gorgeous girl in front of me would continue to listen, and she was staring at me, weirdly fascinated. She told me the other evening that she was compelled that night not so much by my stories — who could be? — but the fact that I had been somewhere, that I had done things. “I was looking at Kim [her other friend] and was like, ‘Er… we went to Mexico for a week once. We live just down the road from each other.’”
And I had been nowhere, really. I had done nothing. It is all relative, and ultimately, like everybody else, I’ve sold out. Real curiosities, the true lost souls of this world, will forever be roaming, searching, struggling, dreaming, wondering. I’m beginning to feel I don’t have it in me anymore., that it is no longer worth it for me. That I want to play ball.
In the end, I was far more like my friend than the weirdo whimsical outsider I once wanted people to believe I was. I am a dreamer, but I am also a human being, one who just wants happiness and serenity and a comfy chair to prop my feet up at the end of the day. Calm.
I might never again just hop in a car with a cohort and drive across the country for assorted aesthetically realised misadventures, I will never be nuts again, I will never cut all ties and just go go go GO, man! Not anymore. I like my flat too much, I like my monthly salary too much, I like my comfort too much. I am tied to this world, in a way the true visionaries never were. I cannot step outside it all, pretend that I am Neal Cassady, just not giving a fuck, ambling about, seeking seeking seeking seeking seeking. No longer. My peace is to be found in a flat that’s clean, in bills being paid, in the overseas family I can call at the end of the week. I didn’t think that’s where it was found. But I think it might be. This doesn’t make me any different than the rest of humanity. It is who I am. It just took me longer than most to realise.
So where does this leave me, or any of us who are starting to understand that, after a while, it takes too much energy to try to be the special unique snowflake all the time? That being normal has its advantages? That there’s a reason people choose comfort and relaxation and playing the game the right way? That’s OK, isn’t it? Isn’t it?
But, Dave, you say, this whole series of incoherent ramblings seems to have been focusing on some sort of final goal, some sort of intangible Meaning Of It All. We want some sort of resolution. The answer to this whole thing, it’s not becoming a corporate drone, is it? Is that what this all means? Do you conquer the demons and figure out what it all means? Do you find a way to be yourself in this universe without becoming what you’ve always fought against? Well, I’m afraid, this story has a rather mundane, mediocre conclusion. I’m just a regular guy, a squirrel trying to get a nut. I have a boss, and rent due, and bills, and a recently-acquired goldfish that needs to be fed. I have visions of a life I go home to every night, with a girlfriend or wife, and neighbours from whom I borrow tools, and membership in the golf club, and maybe a dog. I hope to get there someday. I am not Neal Cassady. Far from it.
I recognise… What is pulling me back to earth here? What has made me see the notion of settling as something that ain’t nothin’ to run from no more? Is it an inherent islander’s desire to have a home, happiness, tranquility? If that was what was important, why would I have ever left the Caribbean in the first place? Or was I just fooling myself then, thinking there was something else out there? Does it even make a difference? I just don’t want to run anymore. I don’t want to search. I just want to be normal. I want to work and go home and have a drink and relax and listen to music and watch sports and not be so damned peculiar and hungry for answers anymore. Is that so wrong? Is it? Seriously. Is it?
But no matter. Worry not. In a week, I’m sure I’ll feel the exact opposite. I am crazy, you know!
Recently, I’ve been asked by a few people what advice I would give someone who wants to be a writer. They assume because I have a blog and once, as a full-time journalist, I wrote for a living, that I ought to be able to tell others how to do it. It’s a fair assumption. But the truth is, I’m still and always learning!
Asking me how to write is like asking directions from a blind man with a guide dog; I don’t know how to tell you the way to get there. I just follow the dog.
That said, here are a few tricks the dog keeps trying to teach me.
First, write about what you know, the thing that’s right in front of you, the thing you’ve been given to write about, the thing you can’t seem to get off your mind. Read a lot and, in particular, read everything you can find by the writers you like best; if you like them, it’s probably because their voice speaks to the voice in you. Develop that voice. It’s yours.
Write like yourself, the way you talk. Read what you’ve written out loud. If it doesn’t sound like you, rewrite it until it does. Learn the rules of writing and stick to them a long time before you dare start messing around.
Write between the lines; say more with less. And be prepared to suffer, not because writing invites heartache, but because it always insists on examining it. Never pretend to be what you aren’t, or to know what you don’t know. That applies more to life than to writing, really, but the two are not so different. And as for inspiration, I don’t need it to write. I just need a deadline. It’s the surest cure I’ve ever found for writer’s block.
If you want to write, if you feel called to do so, you should. And you will. Maybe you won’t earn a living at it. Few writers ever do.
But you can write cards to encourage the downhearted; and notes of condolences to comfort those who suffer loss; and crisp, compelling business letters that clearly explain why the item you received was not the item you ordered, and what exactly you will do if you are not reimbursed. You can write job applications and memos to colleagues and letters to the editor, or to your MP, or to God, to shed light and right wrongs and make the world a better place, or at least, to get stuff off your chest.
You can write for posterity the stories your grandparents told you, stories that will be lost if you don’t write them before you die.
You can write love letters to your children or to anyone, really, to say all the things that you could never say with your mouth.
You can even write in a diary or journal, if you are so inclined (and a lot more disciplined than I am) to get to know yourself better.
That, of course, is the real reason we read and write — to know and to be known. It has been that way a very long time and I expect it always will. It works like this:
You take thoughts and feelings from your mind and your heart, and occasionally from your soul, and you fashion them into words.
That is called language.
You put the words on paper, or perhaps on a computer screen, using lines and circles, marks and symbols, until you trust them to carry your meaning.
That is called writing.
Then someone — who perhaps has never seen your face or heard your voice — sees your lines and circles and symbols and marks, and recognises them as words.
That is called reading.
Sometimes, unpredictably, the words hold the power to recreate the writer’s thoughts and feelings in the mind and the heart and even in the soul of the reader.
That is called communication.
Some do it for love. Some do it for money. And some of us, if we are lucky, get to do it for both.
And that’s where I will stop for now. The dog has gone to sleep.
I lied to a journalist last week. It was not a sneaky misdirection, not a subtle not-quite-the-whole story, wink, wink. I flat-out, bald-faced (where did the expression “bald-faced” come from, anyway? As a 30-something-year-old who looks a lot younger, I’m pretty much bald-faced all the time), between clenched teeth, lied. Bore false witness. A falsification, a fib, a pulling of leg.
Now, as a journalist myself, I’m aware that if there’s one profession you don’t want to lie to, it’s a journalist. When they’re not piss drunk, those guys are crafty buggers, and they’ll find you out. It’s a tough game, interviewing people, being interviewed, and to survive it, you need powers of manipulation that I’ll never have.
Mind you, it’s not like we were discussing cancer research or nuclear fission here; my lie didn’t hurt anybody, and it was inconsequential enough that I shouldn’t even be worrying about it. She probably knew I was lying, and she probably didn’t care. Yet still it bothered me. She was nice, had written something nice about me in the past, and I thanked her by lying to her, even making up details to cover it up.
My mother loves to tell the story of the first time that she realised her darling boy was, in fact, capable of lying to her. I was about five, and we were having a family get-together at my grandfather’s. There was this cat, you see, and this cat was bothering me, meowing too loudly, biting too harshly, scratching too fiercely. Sitting next to this cat was, of all things, a can of white paint, open, with a brush lying tantalisingly just to the side. When you’re five, you don’t think, oh, shit, this jar of goo is something I shouldn’t mess with, and you certainly don’t consider the possibility that taking that brush and spreading it all over the cat is the type of matter that might potentially displease someone. The idea must have dawned eventually, though, because when the cat came stumbling out of the garage, smelling of paint and more than a little petrified, and the mothers came out accusing their own and each others’ kids… the one no one’s eyes were trained on was me, because I said I didn’t do it, and Mum knew I could never lie to her, and she told all the other mothers so and that was that and that was all.
Of course, when my mom’s sister-in-law noticed a certain white substance dripping off my trainers and a certain embarrassed downward glance from a totally busted 5-year-old, the game was up. Mum says she cried for two days afterward, and she never quite looked at me with same trusting innocence again.
I’m proud to say my lying-to-my-mother skills improved considerably as the years went on. (No, Mum, honestly, I was pulled over by violent, drooling scumbags who forced me to put those condoms in my pockets. Seriously!)
One of my least favourite claims people make about themselves is that they’re terrible liars, as in, “I tried to lie, but I’m just rubbish at it. I couldn’t keep a straight face.” This is supposed to, in their eyes, clue us into the fact that they’re essentially honest people and just couldn’t mask their inherent sincerity. This is, of course, total bullshit; the only difference between them and everyone else is that they’re incompetent fibbers, not that they’re reluctant ones. We all lie, often, daily, most likely to the people we care about most and listen to us closest, because we’re human beings and, with the possible exceptions of nuns, human beings are amoral, hedonistic, self-serving arseholes.
This calls into question even our most dear friendships, because the people who are supposed to know us best, the ones we pour our hearts out to, have probably been lied to by us more than anyone else. They’re probably little lies, harmless ones, I got a 30 rather than a 27 on my scores, that sort of thing. No, I didn’t sleep with her until the second date, small stuff. We tell our friends lies because they like us, and we want them to continue to. We try to paint ourselves in the most positive light, because, well, it’s hard to find people who like you, let alone like you the way you actually are. It comes to the point sometimes that I’m more honest with you, the reader, in this blog, than I am with my closest friends. I already know you don’t like me; no need to try to impress you.
Yet one of the most common questions I’m asked about this blog is, “Is all that shit you write about true?” Now, ignoring the fact that such a question accuses me of the most base of journalistic ethical breaches — I mean, we’re talking about writing something that is not true — but, well, wouldn’t that take all the fun out of it? I mean, what’s the point of writing a blog about my own life if I’m going to make shit up? What kind of depraved, desperate-for-attention human being would fabricate stories about being an idiot? How unbelievably pathetic would a person have to be to scream for help in such a primal, degenerate way? (Don’t answer that.) Of course this is true.
But where do I draw the line? In one article some months ago, I mentioned being selected one of London’s “20 Most Eligible Bachelors” by GQ magazine. Now, that’s obviously not true, since I threatened them with a lawsuit if they published my name. What single guy wants to be considered one of the city’s top eligible bachelors, anyway? But you knew I was joking when I wrote that, right? Do I have to make that clear? Do I lose credibility?
I was thinking about all this after I hung up with the journalist. I just fibbed to her. If she knows I’m capable of lying on the phone, doesn’t that call everything I’ve written into question? How can she believe anything I say again? Plus, I started feeling quite guilty. It’s not fun to lie to people; it leaves that nasty ashamed aftertaste, like sleeping with a girlfriend you just broke up with. Like that keys-and-phone song from Britain’s Got Talent, I couldn’t make it leave my brain.
So I called the journalist to make amends. After leaving a message, at last I got hold of her.
“Hey, listen, Leah… you know that thing you asked me about earlier? Listen, I’m sorry, I wasn’t completely honest about that whole thing. I was trying to keep our secret going, but I didn’t have to lie to you to do it. I just feel like an idiot. So, outside of this interview, friend to friend, I’m just really sorry.”
“Oh, but, um, everything else I said… that was all true. Honest.”
“Yeah. I understand. Don’t worry about it. It’s fine.”
Sigh. I haven’t read the story Leah wrote yet, but I hope it makes me look like a real prick. I figure I deserve it.
When I first moved to Surrey, back in the early noughties, my apartment was the most popular meeting spot for all my friends. True, its location was convenient, but in those days it didn’t have much furniture and anyplace you might want to sit, if it wasn’t piled high with books or junk, was covered with a sticky film of dust and week-old pizza cheese. Look, what do you want from me? I was a single guy, living alone. If a girl was coming over or something, I’d always make sure to scrape the worst of the stuff off the walls.
But people always came by. Whenever we had a party to go to, everyone would gather at my place for drinks beforehand. Whenever anyone wanted to grab a few beers and chill out after work, good old Lansdowne Road was the perpetual destination. Why? Because I was the only guy who didn’t have a television.
It was a revolutionary concept to a group of people weaned on television. Rather than just sitting silently in a room staring at sports highlights, or cooking shows, or wild animals procreating, whoever came was forced to actually speak and interact with each other. We’d just grab some drinks, put on some music and just chat all night. And people loved it. Everyone remarked on how much they enjoyed coming by David’s place, and, I assure you, that never happens. No one could really believe it; not watching telly was not only productive, it could be fun.
I wasn’t trying to make any statement by not having a television; I just didn’t trust myself. With my telly in the front room, I was spending a frightening amount of time falling asleep on my sofa to reruns of ER. I’d just started writing more, and every time inspiration would hit, it would be all I could do to avoid the narcotic of Die Hard sequels on Channel Five. Eventually I just sold the damn thing; it was like removing a tumour. Shortly after that, I started writing my first novel, and I haven’t stopped. But now I have a TV again and the old habits are creeping back.
Of course, these days, everyone has Sky Plus or something like that. A friend of mine, a doctor, often works nights and wakes up about noon. After breakfast, he flips through all the night’s programming — specifically sports and Sky Atlantic shows, among my personal vices as well — sets up exactly what he wants to record and then goes to work. When he comes home, he watches all the night’s events, at his own pace, until the wee hours of the morning. Then he goes to bed and does the whole thing again. What’s bad about this is not that television appears to be ruling his life; what’s bad is that any of us, including me, would likely do the exact same thing.
I have Sky Plus, myself. I got rid of the movie channels over a year ago and kept all the sports. Still, included in my package are several Lifetime affiliates and, as of earlier this year (woo hoo!), Sky Atlantic (aka HBO UK). Now anytime I want to watch Curb Your Enthusiasm or The Sopranos, it’s all there. This is not good. This is bad. This is trouble.
I had a long week and have been putting off writing this piece, mostly out of exhaustion and, um… lack of electricity? But now, I’ve sat down to do it, in front of the TV.
I’m watching golf on the telly right now. It’s a little embarrassing to say this, but either I’ve got older and more boring or golf has become considerably more interesting since I last paid any real attention to it. It’s very soothing, golf… shit, watching golf is better than actually being outside… let’s see, what else is on…
A man just told me how, when he got genital herpes, he decided that wasn’t gonna stop him from living his life. (You go, guy!) Dave (the channel) is showing Friday the 13th, Part VII. (Stay out of the woods, people!) Ozzy Osbourne appears unable to articulate syllables while singing at some outdoor gig. (Um, isn’t Ozzy a professional singer? Does anybody believe this act anymore?) OMG, Newcastle’s Joey Barton just got slapped by Gervinho of Arsenal… wow, Sky has an on-demand service that lets you watch porn ANYTIME… ooh, look, Kate Winslet is nude in a movie again… that’s wild that you can chop all that salad so easily…
Usually, writing a piece for this blog takes about an hour, maybe a little more if I’m feeling particularly windy. This piece, written on a laptop in my living room, in front of the telly, took me seven hours. Sky Living is running a marathon of that Monk show, you see. There’s three hours, right there. (That little dude always gets his man!)
How anyone gets anything done these days, honestly, I have no idea.
Writers try to make concessions to what interests readers but inevitably they end up writing about what interests them. I spend so much time writing that punctuation looms large in my life. However, I recognise that a lot of people couldn’t care less about it — or “could care less” as the expression has become even though it doesn’t make sense.
There are nine punctuation marks in that first paragraph of mine and they all serve a purpose. The period, full stop or dot used as an unequivocal stop to a flow of words is one of the great inventions of all time. It’s simple and there’s no doubt about what it means. It’s interesting that it has recently acquired a whole new use in computer language as “com”. When you speak it, you say, “dot com,” not “period com.”
I especially like dashes in a sentence, like the one in my first paragraph, although I don’t think they were even an acceptable punctuation mark when I started taking English Language and Composition classes in primary school. A dash is somewhat similar to but different from three dots in a sentence… if you know what I mean.
Commas are useful in making the meaning of a written sentence clearer to a reader but copy editors seem to have turned against them and I don’t understand why. There are fewer commas going around than there were, say, 20 years ago. (I’m not sure, of course, whether it’s the editors or the writers who are using fewer of them, but I often have to re-read a sentence to understand it because of a missing comma.)
I like using parentheses like that occasionally, too. It indicates the thought is sort of a side remark being made to the reader. If you use brackets, they convey a different meaning. Parentheses are rounded marks to set off a group of words. Brackets are a different shape, usually with right angles at top and bottom. I think of them as strong parentheses and hardly ever use them even though there are keys for them on every keyboard.
No one writes as he speaks and no one speaks as he writes, but when you put words down on paper, you ought to be able to hear yourself saying them. If you cannot, the chances are that what you have written is stilted, stiff and too formal. You can’t write exactly as you speak, though, because it would be repetitive and rambling.
The advantage the written word has over the spoken word is that you can think a moment about what you want to say and how you want to say it instead of blurting it out. When we speak like that, we usually recognise that we haven’t said what we meant accurately so we rephrase it and say it again. On paper, you have the opportunity to say it right the first time.
There is one punctuation mark I have never fully understand so I hardly ever use it. That is the semicolon. The colon is a practical divider of ideas and I often use one, but I rarely use a semicolon because I don’t know what it does. I don’t even know why it’s spelled all one word instead of being hyphenated as “semi-colon.”
The semicolon is a period over a comma. If you use a period, a comma, a colon, question mark, quotation mark, hyphen, dash or bracket, you know what you’re doing, but what does a semicolon do? Is it sort of a colon? It is used to separate ideas in a sentence that are more different than when you use a comma but not so different as when you use a period. This bears no likeness to the use of a colon and so, seems to make no sense.
But after four centuries, it would appear the semicolon has finally achieved its true calling. The semicolon: helping people wink online since the 1990s! 😉
Inside of me are words
longing to come out
yet confined to hell
by the rules of another man’s skill.
Who cares how you write
as long as you do.
Who cares what you speak
as long as you try.
Don’t let the pain of confinement
let the words dry up
let them out
if only to live and breathe
as they should…
Written after a meeting with an editor!
Intelligent, funny, well-written. The dialogue pacing is flawless and the comic timing is spot on. And yes, there’s lots of sex too. But the brilliant Emmy- and Golden Globe-winning series Californication is much more than that and it’s such a pity that so many of the reviews and promos have focused mainly on the sex (Did I mention there’s lots of it?). It doesn’t help either that it’s been buried away on Channel Five here in the UK.
Hank Moody (David Duchovny) is an excellent characterisation of a writer in crisis: struggling with writer’s block and emotionally confused; self-destructing, yet desperately trying to hold it together and make sense of it all.
So what has all this got to do with my blog? Well, Hank blogs too. But more importantly, like Hank, I feel I’m at my best when I’m writing. For a writer, particularly during low moments in life, putting pen to paper is an outlet — sometimes the only one — for releasing the pressure. It’s when I find that I can’t write at all, not even a few words… that I know things are really turning to shit.
Thankfully, that’s not very often — my life is nothing as crazy or fucked up as Hank’s — but any serious writer will be able to identify with the angst, the introspection and, yes, the occasional self-loathing, even as they envy his ability to literally charm the pants off the ladies. I certainly do!
Californication is one of the best comedy-dramas currently on telly. It’s now in its 4th Season, but check out the Season One trailer and clip below: