The Half Life of Gloom

This is a tough summer to be in the encouragement business. Tar balls roll up on our beaches, the recession deepens, the magazine business is kaput, and publishing keeps taking body-shots while the rest of the world checks its text messages.

For those of us teaching in MFA programs these days, there is much dark comedy in what we do. We spend half our lives clapping young writers on the back, cheering them on, while the other half is spent despairing over the prospects of our ever being published again.

For the novelist or short story writer with five or six books, it feels as if the bottom has just fallen out of the boat. Advances have been slashed, bookstores closed, book review pages obliterated. Editors and agents all say it has never been worse. Technology has changed everything. How many people spend the evening reading Martin Chuzzlewit when they could be checking out the newest YouTube?

Yet there is part of me that is skeptical of all this moaning and groaning—but don’t writers always moan and groan? When I came to New York in the mid-60s, lugubrious articles appeared regularly in The New York Times proclaiming the death of theater. This was at the very moment when Sam Shepard, Lanford Wilson and a dozen other mad geniuses were doing their plays in cafes and church-basements in the Village. They cast their friends in parts, wrote and performed their own music, and took too many drugs. There was wildness afoot. I remember being agog at the sight of a transvestite gorilla singing on stage, seeing Sam Shepard scampering about the graveyard of St. Mark’s Church after just having made an entire audience vanish with the help of a cheap fog machine. Within two or three years, Off-Off Broadway had become the hippest of all the arts, after having been totally ignored by the uptown critics.

When things get this quiet, it usually means there’s about to be an explosion. What do artists do when they find themselves in front of an insurmountable wall? They find a way around it. They invent something. They start their own magazines, circulate manuscripts by hand, fund movies by maxing out credit cards. No one ever said this would be easy.

I may be a bit addled by the hundred-degree Texas heat, but my advice to writers, young and old, is beware of cultural despair. Be loose. Be reckless. Don’t be intimidated or timid. Keep swinging for the fences. And if you need a clap on the back, come see me.