Once during our conversation I mentioned I’d been writing about our encounters. Doctor K seemed pleased by this. He wanted to know why, what purpose it served me.
“I do it for a couple reasons,” I said. “One is that it’s kind of like flexing my muscles—keeping these journals helps me as a writer. I’m talking about technical stuff here, the craft itself. It’s not easy, writing. I spend a lot of time just getting the words and sentences right.”
Doctor K nodded. And that is true: for me these journals are not just personal explorations—liberations, in a sense—but good practice when it comes to retelling an experience and telling it in a way that interests and engages the reader. I always want these journal entries to seem more like stories, true ones of course, but stories nonetheless. And this way of thinking led to the other reason I had for these journals: “And because someday I’d like to self-publish them. Not that I believe I’d ever make money on them or that anybody would even care, cos I don’t, but—have you ever read The Basketball Diaries?”
For a moment, Doctor K’s eyes unfocused, his lips tucking into a thready flatline as he thought. “Wasn’t that a movie?’
I must have grimaced a little, because after I’d drearily told him yes, yes there is a movie version, he chuckled and admitted he’d never read the book and figured, by my sullen expression, the movie was less than great. Truth is, I’ve never seen the big-screen version of The Basketball Diaries; I only just heard it sucked.
“Well so I was thinking about doing something similar. I mean it’s not the same, you know—I’m no Jim Carroll. People aren’t going to be interested in my life because who am I, right; I’m just a nobody. But maybe I put all my journals into a book and put it out there, see what happens. Maybe the writing’s good enough by itself.”
This hadn’t seemed like a terribly novel idea to me, but to Doctor K it must have. He perked up a little in his chair. For ten to fifteen minutes afterward we mused on the idea of a therapy patient’s journal, released into the world for all to read. He thought there might be some practical, therapeutic application in it—like, This is What Therapy is Like, or An Insider’s Guide. Something helpful to others. I rarely get that far in my thinking, mostly by choice. These journals—this is all just scribbles on the wall; my art, my view of the world though a skewed and often hazy lens. I don’t think about other people when creating something, and the reason I don’t is because I can’t. These journals, for example. The moment I start thinking about how other people might react is the moment when this experiment fucks up and jams and comes to a grinding, screeching halt.
And amid all of this talk about writing, those words were still floating around: special, deep, insightful, intelligent, brilliant. It was all beginning to sound like gushing praise for bold, world-worthy accomplishments that I’d never made. I couldn’t take it anymore. I was sitting on the leather sofa, head sagging, shoulders slumped, folded into myself like a paper airplane that didn’t want to fly, trying to deflect it all—going all Neo from The Matrix on the good doctor and mentally dodging left and right as these compliments whizzed by my head. I wasn’t buying the special person routine. He brought up my publishing record again, saying that, hey sure, a person might get published once or twice in their life almost as a lark—a thing that happens—“but to be published nine times? Jon, not everyone can say that.”
Hearing that, I almost felt embarrassed, glad no one else was around to overhear. Nine times wasn’t anything special to brag about. And in my case it mattered even less because a few of those publications were to the same market. I had unwittingly found an editor who liked my stories. He was willing to dole a small amount for each and I needed the money. So listening to Doctor K emphasize my nine times in the sun, I was tempted to say those repeats didn’t count, or counted less than the first-time sales I had made. It seemed to matter more when there was no personal correspondence with the editor-in-chief, mattered more when, upon acceptance of another story, he didn’t congratulate me with an e-pat on the back, didn’t grin as though we were old chums and say, “It’s good to have you back on the schedule.” But I sensed it was futile to argue with Doctor K. And besides, repeat market or not, the truth is I like being paid for the shit I make up in my off-hours. A résumé peppered with the names of ten or twenty different journals is admirable and speaks convincingly about a writer’s ability, but a good chunk of those journals only pay in the form of exposure, and exposure means fuck-all to someone who’s broke. They don’t accept exposure as a method of payment at the supermarkets where I buy my food. There isn’t a place at the pump to swipe my Visa Exposure card when the tank holds more fumes than gas.
At some point during our session I told Doctor K I preferred to avoid any extended talk about writing. Though it was fun and a topic I obviously found very interesting, it was also easy to discuss. During our hour I could have gone on at length about the intricacies of point of view, narrative person, story structure, and had a rocking good time. But all of that was comfortable and familiar. I didn’t have the money to lounge on some therapist’s leather sofa, sublime as it was, talking about the comfortable and familiar. I told him that writing, at the moment, meant little to me. Just a useful diversion. Most days it kept me occupied, provided goals that didn’t seem impossible. Otherwise, being a literary superhero was a fantasy. Success, on a level not microscopic (i.e., my nine publications), seemed unlikely.
“But the things you’re writing about, it’s still very personal. And it’s all connected. The level of depth and the insight you are able to obtain—that’s not something just anybody could do.”
“I suppose that’s true. I mean if I were writing fantasy, something that was not connected to my life, not in any way personal, it would be different.”
And it would have. But that has never interested me. I had mentioned to Doctor K once before that I often felt bad about the stories I wrote, the recent ones where I have been more inclined to deposit myself into the narrative as a character. Today I told him how earlier in the week I’d written a story, again for a competition, that was the literary equivalent of a snuff film.
“It was tough to write, and afterward I felt … bad, horrible about it. Like it was a worthless story, had no redeeming value whatsoever, didn’t speak to the human condition or any of that—didn’t even try. And I’ve been feeling more of that lately—a lot more. As I’ve written these stories, I’ve continually asked myself, ‘What use does any of this have for anybody but me? Why should anyone care? Why should people bother with this junk?’”
I went on to describe for Doctor K how I had been feeling like I was in the middle of an identity crisis. The dark and depressing stories I often defaulted to were all getting tiresome, and yet it felt like the only way I could create anything meaningful, anything that I was proud of and considered art, was to venture into these unlit places, fetch another demon, and drag him clawing and screeching back to the light. After years of practice, failing to ever look on the bright side, the bleak and morose were now my palette. This was the only way I felt like an artist, and it bothered me because it felt stagnant.
Again, Doctor K began scribbling in his notepad. I waited and watched him, sometimes catching the sound of his pen scratching the paper. Whenever our conversations lulled and the room quieted down to the tidal moving of limbs and leaves outside the windows, I’d glance around at various items of his, curious. But these lulls were starting to happen often enough I was running out of things to be interested in. Instead I just closed my eyes and spaced out. Because it was May now and the weather finally turning, the air chirped and warbled and periodically squealed like happy kids dashing around the yards after each other in a game of tag, yer it. I listened, meditative, and tried to hear it all simultaneously. Sometimes it worked. Sometimes it felt like my head was overloading and about ready to short-circuit.