The way forward is backward

How I feel working on my new book

“10:15, personal note: It’s fair to say I’m stepping out on a limb, but I am on the edge and that’s where it happens.” – Maximilian Cohen, Pi (1998)

Personal note: The way forward is not really forward but back. I realize how that sounds, especially now, but allow me to explain. I also realize how these things may only make sense to me but you’ll forgive me for daring to think different. I was watching the film Pi the other day and I experienced déjà vu, as well as an epiphany, not only about myself but about the current world we inhabit. I, of course, related this to my own work, which I have buried myself alive in this year with no obvious way out.

It occurred to me during this revelation that there aren’t any films like Pi any more, nor would any be made now and that made me question why that is. What happened to all the weirdo avant-garde films, books, records, artists? Why is almost everything political now? Why is everyone and everything a carbon copy of itself?!

And without getting into a huge diatribe about the film itself, I want to talk instead about going down the proverbial rabbit hole and how to climb back out because put simply: I WANT OUT.

Deep down inside the rabbit hole – that’s where we are now, whether you realize it or not, though you probably do. Some are comfortable there, others are terrified. Some pretend it’s normal, others are freaking out. But I realized after watching this film that the only way out is not through the rabbit hole but to climb back out.

See, we are so deep into the rabbit hole now that we have forgotten all the things that put us here. We have forgotten the good things and the bad, instead adopting a new and ridiculous present and pretending it’s normal. It’s not. Things are not okay right now and no one one seems to want to find the exit.

And I could get into all kinds of philosophical concepts here about progress and conservation but I don’t want to delve into a political circle jerk because that’s not where I’m coming from with this.

I don’t give a fuck about your political circle jerks.

I don’t give a shit about your goddamned pep rally!

Many people use the allegory of the cave (Plato) to describe this kind of phenomenon but for me, my own experience works better. I like to use the allegory of the pep rally.

I’ve told this story many times but back in high school, when there were pep rallies, I ditched. I wanted no part of the rah-rah mainstream high school horse shit. 99% of my peers walked into those pep rallies and took their medicine. Not me. I walked out. I’ve been walking out ever since.

Does that make me some kind of anti-hero like Maximilian Cohen in Pi? No. Although it certainly explains why I am continually drawn to the anti-hero characters. No, it simply means that even then I wanted nothing to do with the Us/them paradigm – I rejected it. Little has changed since then and with re-visiting Pi I have reminded myself why.

Back to Pi – this is a crazy film, it’s also an amazing film. It’s heavy on narration, which is a frowned upon by Hollywood. It’s also in black and white and has a flawed anti-hero protagonist and it is an anti-Hollywood movie. All of these elements make for an interesting film, which deviates from the norm of today; watching it made me realize just how few filmmakers take chances any more. What happened to all these people?

I wrote a script like Pi once. It’s locked away somewhere among the thousands of others pages I’ve written which will never see the light of day. I loved writing that script but decided it was too crazy – too weird and unconventional for mass consumption. Watching Pi made me remember that there are no rules and that those who take chances, as Maximilian Cohen puts it, live on the edge. They’re the ones who make shit happen. I’d forgotten this.

Most of my heroes are like this – Thompson, Burroughs, Serling, Sagan, Rollins…

In college, I took a screenwriting class. In it I was taught the Syd Field method for screenwriting, which is what most Hollywood films use. It’s formulaic and is geared more towards selling a story rather than telling one. Field’s method is great but I’ll be goddamned if most of my favorite films don’t break his mold.

And so it occurred to me that despite the creative renaissance we had in the 90s, where I cut my teeth as a writer, that the vast majority of people now have painted themselves into a corner and are afraid to take any chances, or even broach “the edge” because we are all too afraid to be labeled negatively by others. We have been shamed into policing our own creative ideas. We are so afraid now to be labeled an “ist” or an “ic” that we no longer dare to break the boundaries of creativity. And this is part and parcel what made artists so great in other eras – eras many of us admire and envy – they took chances and they took risks. Who is taking chances now? Who is taking risks now? No one. Everyone is afraid of offending someone and thus, art is dead.

There are a great number of folks now who applaud this turn against the old ways, obviously I am not one of them, which is why I am advocating for a return to that kind of spark and rebellion, as opposed to “progressing” towards a bland, politically correct, safe and creatively soulless future.

The “resistance” people are preaching to each other these days is a lie. It’s just a march towards more of the same. What people should be rejecting is this push for brainwashing everyone to think the same.

I see this pattern in so many things now; art, music, film, books – everyone is afraid of their own shadow and no one wants to step on anyone’s toes. No one wants to break the mold. We live in a creative black hole where people are scared to even think things that might offend others. As an artist myself this is a nightmare. But how to escape this rut?

The way forward is backward, not through the rabbit hole but back out.

Too much self-examination makes for a head full of holes

Again, this all makes sense to me because I can relate it to my own work and experience. All of this reminded me of how free my creativity used to be when I wasn’t concerned about who was going to get upset about it or whether it was too crazy for anyone. I had to remind myself that I create for myself and myself alone. And while I haven’t gone completely down the rabbit hole I do believe that I need to take more chances creatively again – that’s what got me here to begin with.

I read an interesting thread the other day on a writing forum on Reddit. In it, a guy related how being older has made him more critical of his writing and thus stifled it. I related to this. He said that despite having many ideas, the desire to write about them had waned, mostly because he was too self-critical of his work. He was afraid. He wondered if it was just a symptom of getting older. The advice given to him is much the same as what I’ve already stated here: he had become afraid to take chances, mostly as a result of being too worried about what people would think of his work.

So this is me asking myself why I am so concerned about being perfect or accepted instead of just chopping wood and letting the rest sort itself out. This is especially absurd considering how small my audience is. I might have books that are part of a college curriculum and I might have people who have written their PhD thesis about my work, but my audience is still tiny. I am my own worst critic and I have lost the edge. Watching Pi in all its glorious absurdity reminded me that I should not plow forward with “progress” but instead climb backwards and delve right back into the insanity and magic that got me here – I need not reinvent the wheel but return to the wheel I know. And I need to stop giving a shit if the wheel is going to hurt anyone’s feelings. Fuck your feelings.

This advice may or may not work for you but I know it is the answer for me. I miss that edge. I miss taking chances and the excitement that comes with it. There’s a reason I return endlessly to the art, music, books, films of different eras, and shun the stuff created today. I wish the current generation of artists would find the courage to take chances again, but I know that most of them won’t – they are too paralyzed by their own fear. I also hope that the next generation finds a way to break this spell and return to an era of taking risks again.

And I realize that people think they are taking risks today – being edgy or that they’re “woke” etc. – but they’re not. How edgy can you really be going along with exactly what everyone else is thinking/doing? That’s not the edge – that’s just joining the mainstream at the pep rally and shaking your pom-poms.

I’m repeating myself; this is an unfortunate side effect of age, but again I blame social media for killing the creative spirit and the lust for finding the edge. We have lost that lust for life and traded it for “likes” and or the social approval of strangers. Whether we want to admit it or not, we are all puppets on our little stages and performing for our audience’s approval. That’s the corner we’ve painted ourselves into. It’s nice to have an audience but it’s a double-edged sword when you become more concerned with their adoration/scorn than you do with taking risks with your own work.

My point is this: I want to find the edge again and return to myself. I am almost there. Though I have struggled with this last book, it has taught me that I need to crawl out of the rabbit hole. In many ways I have come full circle.

It’s funny, almost everyone I see these days is caught up in the same thing; they’re still at the pep rally of life, rah-rah-ing and participating/cheering/screaming in whatever the current us/them paradigm is, and I am still walking out the side exit, heading towards the edge again, where I belong. See you there.

  • S|J|R






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