On writing to escape versus embrace
A digital letter exchange between Paris and Chicago
Welcome to a special Thursday edition of Field Research, the weekly dark humor and satire publication written and produced by me,.
I’m excited to change things up today and share my digital letter exchange with suave and sophisticated Parisian. This opening salvo is the first in what should become an ongoing series.
As always, please join the conversation by sharing your thoughts in the comments.
Below the exchange there’s a quick recommendation for The Mirror Thief, the mindbending 2016 novel written by my friend and new Common Shareholder, Martin Seay.
I was thinking of what specifically I wanted to write to you about, and perhaps this is as good a start as any. You seem to me, from my VERY limited knowledge of you via your writings / comments on Substack, to be a very happy cynic, or perhaps an optimistic cynic. I'm right there with you — it's hard to take much of life seriously when my primary faith is in the consistent promise of the Absurd — and I wonder if your writing reflects your day-to-day experience, or rather if your writing is a reprieve from some other facet of your everyday life.
I've been writing a lot of essays recently, straying away from fiction — in part because it took me so many years to finish my latest novel, which for me feels like a vestigial limb of a different kind of mind that I am not-exactly-evolving-from-but-certainly-growing-out-of. What that mind is — one obsessed with Knowledge, capital-K, as a capital-T truth — is being replaced by an admittedly postmodernist tendency to minimize everything with irony / sarcasm / humor / wit, but with the recognition that on the other side of the doldrums of nihilistic flirtations there IS meaning to be found on the far side of the deep dark bubbling lake.
So my question, I guess, is: what's in your lake? What do you escape from when you enter the writing space, and what do you bring with you from your day-to-day life to stay afloat? It's entirely possible I'm actually writing to an AI chat bot, of course. I can't say I have incontrovertible proof that you, good sir, who I know as Amran, and I am pretty sure you live in Chicago and I know, from your writing, certainly refers to the little humans in your home as children...well I still can't be sure you are, in fact, a living, breathing human being.
And so I repeat my most humanizing attempt at the question: what do you bring with you from the world of emails into the world of fiction, and what are you most hesitant to peer into when you cross that lake?
Samuél, a sentient creature that at a lot of times feels alive
First, I can assure you I’m not an AI chat bot, because no rational, sane, logical, reasonable, sensible, or lucid computer-based organism would willingly brave the byzantine financial madhouse that is the United States healthcare system.
That I injured myself in the most clichéd, dad-like fashion imaginable — a trampoline FFS! — should also unequivocally prove I’m an (allegedly) advanced primate, and offer sufficient justification for why I’m just now responding to your letter two months late.
All that said, to answer the sneakily complex and multi-faceted question you’ve posed: I’ll brashly declare myself a “fearless” writer, who infuses the entirety of his lived experience into his work, and who uses the pixelated page to process his joy, anger, frustration, gratitude, disappointment, and other (100% organic) feelings.
Writing, to me, has never been an escape as much as an embrace. I experienced or encountered or learned about [blank], which made me feel [blank] and [blank], and I processed it in the form of [blank] — with the last [blank] typically arriving in the form of merciless satire or unrelenting sarcasm.
I’ve been navigating the world like this from the moment I could jot down semi-coherent sentences, and I’ve been likewise getting reprimanded and chastised for those very same semi-coherent sentences ever since. Sometimes justifiably, of course, but far more often because I either 1) told a “person” in a position of “authority” they were full of shit (or an asshole, or both), or 2) mentioned the obvious, horrible, uncomfortable thing surrounding us, which everybody knows is super bad, but is way too scared to discuss out loud.
Put another way, as a member of a species born mad, writing is how I attempt to stay sane.
And I think, because of my self-declared “fearless” approach, my work resonates with people, even if they don’t agree with every single word I produce. For example, it’s not societally acceptable to call your children psychopaths, but many people, who love their children dearly, and would do anything for them — like me — nonetheless have (daily) moments where they’re like, “Jesus H. Christ my children are goddamned psychopaths!”
I like to believe those people — especially the bona fide parents among them — appreciate my words, because I’m giving voice to their lived experiences. And by using dark humor or scathing satire as my vehicle, I’m granting them permission to laugh and accept ideas that would otherwise be considered faux pas in polite company.
Of course, while I can puff myself up and haughtily declare I’m “fearless” with a keyboard, that isn’t totally true. In my humor and satire writing, I’m always, always, always careful not to cause legitimate offense, or harm, or injury — especially to marginalized or put-upon groups. Ridiculing and lampooning the villains without appearing to endorse their villainy is a tricky tightrope to walk. I’ve (so far) managed to avoid getting in trouble in two ways.
First, I always have my wife — who’s significantly smarter and savvier than me — read any risqué or potentially inflammatory pieces in advance. If she has any reservations, I’ll ask close friends or colleagues to review as well.
Second, I punch “up.” Craven politicians and cynical CEOs and bloodthirsty warmongers and my psychopathic children deserve every ounce of opprobrium I can muster. In fact, I’d be thrilled if they all subscribed to Field Research.
On the fiction end of the writing spectrum, however, where there are effectively no rules, and the targeted goals include competent craft and compelling storytelling — rather than edgy punchlines — I sometimes feel paralyzed by fear.
For instance, my in-progress novel (working title: Leverage[d]) draws upon my lived experiences, and at times forces me to revisit exceptionally dark moments from my younger days. In creating a character who’s based on me, who’s clinically depressed, and exploring feelings of worthlessness, and grappling with suicidal ideation, how could I not be afraid to mine that territory? How could I not have reservations? Why would I want to remember those miserable times I feel so lucky to have left behind? I’d imagine even the AI chat bot version of me — or my psychopathic children — would be apprehensive about delving into such raw material.
Nonetheless, the goal of my fiction is also to process my lived experiences. And my intention is for my fiction work to tap into those most essential and vulnerable feelings — the ones which make us human. Of course, that’s much harder, and a lot scarier, than lobbing replacement theory jokes.
Anyway, as a classic narcissist, who loves to talk about himself, I’m sure I’ve said too much. So I’ll pause and parry the same question back to you: do you write to escape, or to embrace? And why?
Looking forward to your certain-to-be-sophisticated response.
Amran, a washed, middle-aged dad, who writes (poorly) to stay (debatably) sane
To answer your question succinctly: I write to escape.
To answer your question long-windedly:
Perhaps the first time I realized that literature was an escape / at least a portal to another realm was when I was able to lock myself in my very own bedroom and read a book all by myself.
I was probably eight or nine years old. I don’t quite remember. But I know I’d recently acquired my very own bedroom thanks to my parents’ divorce.
It isn’t a sad story, just the story of life (as Vonnegut says: “so it goes”). Once my father moved out and no longer needed his office / bedroom in my mother’s home, me and my twin brother Aaron stopped sleeping in the same room (Aaron is an illustrator who’s now on Substack; he has impeccable comedic taste and wit).
The walls of my bedroom were soon plastered with posters of Michael Jordan and Patrick Ewing and, later, Britney Spears and a gaudy “GOT MILK?” poster showcasing a farmgirl in a small tee shirt and VERY short shorts.
But that’s neither here nor there. The point is, having my own bedroom was the first time I truly felt like I had a chance at being myself — and not just a twin — because of the awe-inspiring power of reading a book behind a locked door.
One of the first books I remember reading was Psycho by Robert Bloch. I remember a) being amazed that I was able to get my hands on such a terrifying book directly from the bookshelf and b) I remember being bowled-over by the possibility of actually feeling something by virtue of words alone.
When you grow up with a sibling who looks much like you and has similar interests, the vast majority of the emotions you experience are shared. This isn’t a bad thing, it simply is what it is. Most of everything I did as a child was either alongside my twin brother, or was in direct defiance of our existential connection. Whenever I made a choice not to do something with my twin brother, it was less a successful attempt at individuation than proof of my essential twinness.
Except for reading.
The physical act of reading is one of the simplest ways of telling people to fuck off without having to actually say it. To this day, “I’m going to read” is my way of saying “please leave me alone.” This is why I spent so much time reading The Narnia Series and Harry Potter and Shel Silverstein and Calvin and Hobbes and The Far Side. Reading (and soon writing) became an escape from the Samuél that I was to everybody else, a twin who played a lot of basketball with his brother and had, by virtue of being a twin, a large group of friends. Importantly, however, it wasn’t because I didn’t enjoy being a twin brother that I escaped into my room (he’s the best friend I’ve ever known), but because I realized that via literature, I could possess myself as I was in a space I could call my own.
My mother tells me I started writing around that time, too, and while I don’t remember writing specifically, I do know I kept journals and I know I wrote a book of abstract poems called Funk Backwards when I was just a boy, as well as a sequel, Funk Backwards II.
But did I write those poems from a place of escape or liberation? In my mind, those are two sides of the same coin. To that extent, I can agree with you, at least in principle, that writing is also a form of embrace, but this sounds vaguely self-aggrandizing to me, or at least spiritual / too-good-to-be-true, because of one simple fact that has colored my writing life: in my experience, writing is fucking hard, and writing well often feels near impossible.
I struggle with writing every day, not so much when I’m actually in it, which is the dream, but for all the hours around the writing when I’m thinking about how I should or wish I were writing. If I were to say that I write as an “embrace” it is only insofar as I’m able to embrace those moments when I can escape the exterior world, as I did as a boy, locked in my own room.
This is why I’m a stickler for writing without Wi-Fi and with my phone on airplane mode. There’s something about writing, for me, that has everything to do with traveling to an uncharted part of my brain. I am one of those people who believes that writing, when done correctly, reveals the shedding of ego in favor of the communal, which is a thorny idea insofar as of course our ego comes into the writing process, but when I’m true to a narrative or a character it’s because they shake me to something resembling my core.
I’m a big fan of this André Gide quote, which probably could have answered your question just as easily: “One does not discover new lands without consenting to lose sight of the shore for a very long time.” To this extent, my best writing comes when I have a vision of a world / story / character that forces me to look beyond myself. It has something to do with making the personal universal, and with recognizing that being a human is damn challenging and absurd and hilarious and fascinating at the same time.
I think I’ll leave it at that for now. As usual, these considerations really should be accompanied by a glass of whiskey. For now, I’d like to thank you for these missives. It’s a pleasure to get to know somebody from across an ocean via letters. In that sense, I can genuinely say I feel like I’ve got a new friend in Chicago, and you in Paris, and I’m looking forward to continuing this conversation, so HERE COMES THE REBUTTAL in the form of a thought and a question:
You mentioned “being careful not to cause legitimate offense, or harm, or injury — especially to marginalized or put-upon groups” when you write, but to be blunt, this smacks to me of covering your bases via political correctness. I have no doubt that you know some off-color jokes that would make a lot of people laugh and that would also offend many others… but can reasonably good comedy be written from a position that is primarily concerned with not offending?
As someone who is extremely wary of authoritarianism in all of its forms in this era, I’m curious whether or not you think it’s possible to be funny while also being polite and inoffensive…not because I agree with the idea that comedy should by definition be offensive, but because “being offended” is a) a choice and b) says at least as much about our own hang-ups as it does about socially acceptable jokes.
In my mind, a good joke is a good joke because it reveals the darkest / less understood aspects of the complexity of being human. I think Ricky Gervais has a joke about it being okay to “punch down” because how else are you supposed to punch a child in the face?
That’s funny to me. Not because I condone punching children (even if they may very well be psychopaths), but because it’s just funny, and now I’m smiling, and if that ain’t the point of comedy, then what is?
Subscribe to if not, Paris!
Well, Friends, there you have it. Hopefully this exchange provided an intriguing introduction to Samuél and sparked some new insights regarding our respective creative processes, which may be applicable to yours.
Make sure to subscribe to Samuél’s thought-provoking newsletter if not, Paris below: 👇🏽👇🏽👇🏽👇🏽👇🏽
In the not-too-distant future I’ll take a stab at Samuél’s parting question about how to create comedy without self-censoring — as if I’m qualified to say — and see if I can avoid getting canceled. Should be good times.
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Shoutout to my friend and whip-smart writer Martin Seay, who became a Common Shareholder last week! I had the privilege of meeting Martin at a writing conference last summer where he taught a session on point-of-view.
Martin also wrote a way-too-long but utterly superb essay about the song “Perfect Way,” which is actually a Trojan Horse for a deep dive on Jacques Derrida. You’ll get smarter if you read it. Check it out here.
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See you then!