It wasn’t really a choice. I don’t have an aptitude for music. I found that out in the high school glee club. It wasn’t just that the songs were dumb, I felt shy about my voice, I didn’t like it, and to this day I don’t know a solfège from a saxifrage. I wouldn’t know a B Flat if it sat on my chest and pounded out Moby Dick.
Why was I in the glee club to begin with? I can’t remember. I’m guessing it was for an easy credit, though to be fair, I loved music then, and I love it now. I may have been hoping to connect with the spirit of music in a more visceral way than just listening to it. Whenever I try to remember that last semester in high school during my senior year, I remember feeling deeply self-conscious and awkward. A lot of that insecurity goes with adolescence in general and doesn’t require a specific context. We all go through that. But this was a special case. I was exceptionally ill at ease. I think, in fact, it was a class, not a club. I think I got a C. I know one thing for sure: no inner Elvis Presley emerged.
Words are a different story. I’ve loved them since the beginning, whenever that was. My parents tell me my first word was ‘dog.’ I love dogs, too. But words, words are fascinating little things. Each one a jewel. I took to Shakespeare immediately.
Then Poe, then Huxley, then Rimbaud. “A black, E white, I red, U green, O blue.”
Language is sensual. It is the go-to medium for the intellect, certainly, but language has qualities that appeal profoundly to sensation. Rimbaud finds treasures of sensuality in language: “A, black velvety corset of dazzling flies / Buzzing around cruel smells, / Gulfs of shadow; E, white innocence of vapors and of tents, / Spears of proud glaciers, white kings, shivers of Queen Anne's lace; / I, purples, spitting blood, smile of beautiful lips / In anger or in drunken penitence…”
I’m not entirely sure how much music there is in language. It’s debatable. I hear it. I can hear music when someone is reading or reciting a piece, provided they don’t into a cheesy poet voice. But if somebody says geez, you know what, I don’t really hear music in words. I just need them to get things said that need saying. Pass me the scalpel. Turn on your engine. Make a right turn. Let me take you to dinner. Pass the salt. Yes you can pet my dog. Just don’t step on my blue suede shoes.
For most people, language is simply a tool. It’s used to give directions, inform people, order people, express feelings, make judgments, air opinions.
Language as a medium for artistic expression can be a success; most often, it will perplex people. You might get a pat on the back from a well-meaning friend or relative, but poetry isn’t a big draw like football or rock. You belong to a tiny minority. Think Fahrenheit 451.
So that’s it, that’s pretty much my story. Guy loves words, writes poetry and fiction and essays, gets jealous when rock stars fill stadiums and bookstores perish like Pteranodons during the fifth extinction event.
Anytime someone says well hey, as long as you enjoy it, what does it matter? Isn’t it fulfilling just to be doing something you enjoy?
No, it’s not. One: I don’t get paid. If you don’t get paid, you’ve got to have a job, and a job is going to come between you and your writing. Come home after an eight-hour shift and try to write. Maybe it’ll happen, maybe it won’t. It’s doable, but it takes a lot of discipline. Just getting into a state of creativity takes time. Rituals must be performed. Some preliminary reading maybe, or yoga or mediation. It might help to commit to ten or twenty lines per day to keep it simple and enjoyable, less of a task and more of a rejuvenation.
But trust me: getting paid for something you’ve written is a whole lot easier. A downside might mean writing something you’re good at that sells well enough to provide a good income but it’s material or a style you don’t really enjoy writing. Bummer. Don’t want that. A job might be better. But if you enjoy what you write and the public buys enough books to pay the rent, buy some groceries and secure some good health insurance, you’ve got it made.
Two: according to Maslow’s Pyramid of Needs, prestige and a feeling of accomplishment is a psychological need. Nothing promotes a feeling of accomplishment like a standing ovation or thousands of people waving their hands in the air.
Three: society. When people cease paying attention to language, when they cease to love it and everything about it, when they cease to think critically and their imaginations wither into dried horse manure, everything goes to shit. You get a TV host for president. You get venal democrats who betray you at every turn and then expect your vote because the Republicans are so predatory and morally horrific.
So I keep doing it. I keep writing. There sits death on the horizon. It might be the sixth mass extinction, it might be my own mortality. But things are dying. The polar ice cap is melting. Thousands of hydrogen bombs repose in aging silos. Radiation is leeching into everything. Carcinogens are ubiquitous. There’s more plastic in the ocean than fish, and the fish are full of mercury. The planet is dying. Or, to put it more accurately, the habitats that provide us with food are dying. Hurricanes are more numerous and intense. Drought and desertification are accelerating.
The future is so grim that I can’t look at it without feeling utterly demoralized. The future is, of course, an abstraction. Only the present is real. But predictions based on solid accurate data reveal a very frightening scenario. Our days are numbered. So why, one asks, bother to do anything?
Good question. I don’t have a good answer. I can only relate what works for me. It’s a certain psychology for which I can provide an image: Breakfast in Fur, by Méret Oppenheim, which consists of a teacup, saucer and spoon covered in the fur of a Chinese gazelle. This is not a teacup anyone is going to drink from. It’s not for an actual breakfast. It’s for the joy of innovation. It’s for the joy of doing something that makes no fucking sense.
It’s usually the shit that makes no sense that turns out to be the most valuable. Our species may be on the brink of destruction, but keep flossing your teeth, urges Guy McPherson. Pursue excellence in a culture of mediocrity.
Why? Well, Méret’s teacup. Swans. Piano sonatas. Anything of intrinsic value, however eccentric.
Writing in the face of constant disappointment in terms of sales or fame or recognition by one’s peers is discouraging, but that discouragement occurs only when I’m ruminating or doing something else, not when I’m actually writing. When I’m writing I don’t think about it. It doesn’t occur to me that I’m doing an activity with futile or minimal consequences. I do it because I need to do it to feel alive.
Why does writing make me feel alive?
I don’t know. Maybe it’s because I’ve been doing it so long, or I’ve gotten so deeply immersed in language that the interphase between my biology and the dynamic of language, which is largely self-generating, is a symbiotic relationship feeding and propelling one another.
It’s a feeling. It often feels like the language itself is urging me to put words down, push them into existence, pull them into being, squeeze every last drop of juice out of them, press them into the soil of the moment and see what sprouts.
Language is a living entity. But it’s a parasite. It needs a host. When the last person to speak a language dies, the language dies. It may have been recorded. That’s something. But without people to speak the words, to put them together in infinitely multiple ways to create an infinitely diverse sphere of meaning, the language becomes, at best, a fossil. Bones embedded in the hardpan of a vanished epoch.