Why are Writers Such Irredeemable Bastards?

I am not an innately good person.

But that’s okay, because I think that might be why I’m a good storyteller. Or, somewhat less arrogantly, I think that might be why I want to be a good storyteller. My intrinsic shittiness as a human being might be the reason why stories and their telling are important to me.

When I say I’m not an innately good person, I don’t mean that I’m a psychopath, or even a big fat jerk, exuding fatness and jerkiness over all that I survey. Externally at least, I’m a fairly nice person. But when, say, one of my friends gets a killer book deal while mine flounders, my first thought isn’t bluebirds and sunshine. It’s dirty and selfish and stupid.

Of course, my second thought is “what a shitty thing to think, don’t do that.” But that first impulse is still out there, and it is bad, and that makes me a less than ideal human being. I struggle against my nature, I strive to overcome it, and bit by bit, I learn to better recognize the awful parts of myself and give them a little less power over my life. That is a basic character arc. I might make for a pretty shitty roommate, but I’m a fairly compelling narrative.

Being kind of an inherent dickbag has a lot of cons, but that’s the one big pro: I understand the importance of narrative to human beings. I want to see people undergo trauma and come out of it changed somehow – if not improved, then at least substantially different. If pressed, I would say this is almost mandatory in storytellers. If you’re a genuinely good person, through and through — from first impulsive thought to your last external action – I don’t know how fully you can understand what comprises a good story.

That’s not a rule or anything, just a sneaking suspicion that I have: Maybe you’re a friggin’ saint, but you have such empathy for others that you can experience whole character arcs in your mind without ever going through them firsthand. I don’t know. But for me, the filthy, savage little goblin in my guts that lashes out before thinking? That bastard is vital to writing.

“Fuck you,” he says, in response to literally anything.

But then, after some consideration, another part of my rational mind kicks in and starts analyzing and dissecting the response. Why does the goblin shit on the success of my friends and loved ones? Is it right, that he does that? What should he do, instead? What can I do to make him behave differently?

I’m not breaking new ground. You hear this type of thing all the time: That most creative types are asshole, bastards and jerks. Kurt Vonnegut manufactured a very specific public image – a frazzled, cynical old hippie persona that colored his writing and endeared him to a generation — and then the biographies came out, stating that in reality, he was straight-laced, extremely selfish, often cruel and generally unloving person. Some readers used this as a reason to dismiss his works: “How can I take what this guy wrote seriously, if  he wasn’t actually like that? If it was all just a cynical act to market to me?”

I think, if Vonnegut truly was the friendly, sad old hippie he pretended to be, his books would have held little to no emotional impact. What made him such a compelling writer wasn’t that he was practically a saint who wrote books – it was that he was an asshole, trying as best he could to understand the saints around him. In his personal life, he failed. In his books, he succeeded. I wouldn’t want to share a tent with the guy, but then I probably wouldn’t enjoy the books of a guy that always picks up after himself, pays his bills on time and never plays his music too loud quite as much.

“Fuck you,” Vonnegut said, in response to pretty much everything. And then, after a moment’s consideration: “But…why?”

See, that’s the reason why I write: I think you should go fuck yourself, and I want to understand why.

4 thoughts on “Why are Writers Such Irredeemable Bastards?

  1. SteveySteve

    This is something I’ve often wondered about in my more pretentious moments of introspection. If you go into a party and see everybody effortlessly being themselves and behaving normally, and in your mind you’re wondering what would happen if you just jumped off a table and elbow dropped the entire room– is this just you, or is everybody thinking like that? Is thinking like that helpful or otherwise to somebody who wants to write? What if I did elbow drop them? Who’s going to stop me? The Rock? The Rock doesn’t go to the same parties as I do. I THINK I CAN DO THIS.

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  2. violafury

    I’m reminded of Harlan Ellison as well. He wakes up pissed at the world. I think you have to have a certain amount of assholery and just general pissed-offedness to get it. The cruelties, injustices, just the non-passion that people put into their daily lives. It may not make for a happy life, but it sure as hell makes me ALIVE. As for compassion? That’s a tough one.

    I was homeless, after losing 2 houses. I had a 3rd ex-husband, who, while I was sick with congestive heart failure, and blind with cataracts, went out and got a girlfriend, then did everything in his power, short of committing the physical act in reality, to kill me. I walked away. I got shit in the divorce settlement and walked right into another abusive relationship, that was physical; fuck. Stupid, stupid, stupid. My troll is stupid, not so much evil.

    Now, at least the playing field was level and I punch like a mule. We battered the shit out of each other, and I have no physical fear. All those years of playing the viola helped. Trying to buy another house fell through, when the rent to own folks folded up their tents in 2009. I spent 2 years squatting in that house, before the police stepped in; I landed in the hospital for 2 months.

    Should I mention that I drank pretty much round the clock and worked from home, doing IT shit, during this second house fiasco, through all of this? I didn’t press charges against the guy, because his ex was raising his twins and he was paying child support and I love them dearly. He is just stupid. The 3rd ex-husband was malevolent, vicious and calculating. But, I digress.

    Then, sick, homeless and really at rock bottom, I had to face up to a few truths. And who really doesn’t? You’re not a bastard. You’re a supremely gifted writer, and I suspect you work hard at it. I am an extremely gifted musician; perfect pitch and all that. I worked at it, kinda sorta. But, one thing that separates musicians from writers. Writers I find to be extremely generous with their time, with their tips and critiques.

    Musicians are not. Outside of the teaching environment, it is cutthroat. In 2003, I was at the top of my game and once I started to show a weakness, physically, the knives came out. I don’t play professionally anymore, obviously. I probably never will again. It will be enough for me to get to a point, where I can “audition” for one of the several fine volunteer orchestras, here in the Tampa Bay area and pass it. That will do. Those orchestras are inhabited with people who have retired from the Cleveland Orchestra, the Concertgebouw and Chicago Symphony, so that’s okay.

    I know I’m an asshole; I’ve always been one. And like you, my rational mind kicks in. But is that learned later in life, after many experiences of hoof-in-mouth disease? I was pretty much raised in a household that guaranteed assholery on my part. Alcoholic father, who always had a job and was my primary caretaker, jealous capricious mother, who took it all out on me, at whim and an only child. Existential depression and Asperger. Total mess. No one has to stay like that, though.

    Gut check every day. I still look for the excellence and the passion in life; I always will. But, I live in da ‘hood now. Lots of sadness here. The really bad off, get a helping hand from me. As I did, when I was down and out. Thanks, Robert.

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