Thursday, September 14, 2017

An Existential Crisis

It reads like a modernized existential crisis. A young man who dubs himself “Staring Into the Void” writes to Ask Polly to get advice. He wants to follow his passion and become a writer. He finds in Polly a kindred spirit, perhaps someone who has developed a career as a writer with somewhat limited talent. He thinks that Polly gives the best advice … causing us to question his judgment.

At the least, Polly sees through the ploy. She sees him as a flatterer, though also as someone who is in trouble. She is reading the plaintive wail of a young man who is not doing well and who needs a pep talk. He needs someone to tell him that he has the talent to succeed as a writer. 

Polly is in no position to burst the bubble and she does not burst it. She is an awkward position and does the best she can. She tells him that he ought to get some kind of job while he is pursuing his writerly passion. It’s a tactful way of saying that he should not invest too much in the passion.

More importantly, Polly sees a young man who does not get along with other people. He has his parents and his long distance girlfriend, but that is all. So Polly offers the only sensible advice: he has to go out and connect with other people. Retreating into his shell, his cave, will lead him into the void.

Staring Into the Void tells us that his parents and his girlfriend do not believe in his writing. If he cannot find anyone who thinks that he the talent, that tells us something. If the only person he can find is Polly, she cannot do otherwise but to tell him to keep at it.

Staring Into the Void opens his letter with this self-description. He makes himself look pathetic:

I have never desired the advice of others, until you, Polly. Like a misguided, pathetic, helpless whelp of a 25-year-old man, I submitted major life quandaries to a search engine connecting me to one of the most hopeless, abyssal planes in known existence: the internet. Super-great idea, I know. I waded through cesspools of advice given by youngsters and decrepits alike.

He is not looking for advice as much as he is looking for a reader... and a cheerleader:

Every time I thought you’d give some bullshit answer, you gave the opposite. Every time I thought you’d say something like “Follow your dreams,” you said, “Your dreams may never come true, ever, accept it and live the life you want.” You are the first advice-column writer to reach me, and I have read many. So, naturally, as my weak psyche tends to do, I took it as some grand sign that I should at least attempt to be read by you. Make no mistake, I don’t labor under the delusion that you care about my shitty life or anything that I have to say. But I respect your craft so much that I simply had to try. So, let me get to the question, if you’ve even read this far.

Like an existential hero he feels radically disconnected from other people. Perhaps he believes that it will make him a better writer. For now we do not know what he has done to advance his career, how many contacts he has made, what he has tried to place in which publication, and so on. As far as we know, writing is his passion. With a token that will get you on the subway:

Yet, despite my choice to pursue my ultimate passion and having the support from everyone around me, I feel empty. Obviously, I am terrified of not being able to succeed in a career that has so many uncertainties. My family would never say it, but I can see on their faces that they don’t believe in me or my passions, same for my girlfriend, honestly. In my life, all I have are my parents and my girlfriend, literally no one else.

However, my lack of ability to connect with those of my own age leaves me unable to create windows for meaningful friendship and developing love.

And then there is the girl that got away. Read his description of what happened when he fell in love with Sierra, and see if you can tell what is wrong with this picture:

All that changed when I saw Sierra. My body went ripe with rigor. God, she was beautiful. Slightly crooked nose (from an incident in her youth when it broke), a soft angelic lisp, flowing locks of golden hair, all that sappy load of crap. What they say is true, you know, everything turns into this slow-motion glide and your legs feel swollen like a couple of gourds. Do people say that? Anyway, completely against my character, I approached her and the swarm of hyenas cackling around her. For once in my life, my feelings for something were so strong that I fought against everything I am, and to my surprise I walked away with her number. The next few days were intense. We talked like we were the only two people on earth. We stayed up late swapping biographies the size of novellas through text. It would sometimes be 3 a.m. and we’d both need to be up by 7 a.m. We didn’t care. 

Anyone who uses images like “the swarm of cackling hyenas” is not a natural born writer. Be that as it may, the bubble was burst when Sierra told him that she had a boyfriend:

Everything was going so gloriously. I had concocted a brilliant scheme to marry this girl and then suddenly the most horrid word in the world was dropped. “Boyfriend.” Sierra had a boyfriend of four years. She was madly in love. The one person in all of creation who shared my every interest, my every philosophy on life, yet maintained sizable differences enough to keep us interested, was gone. She was instantly removed from my world. They’ve been together seven years now. I still think of her every day. Which, to me, makes so little sense because I don’t even speak to her anymore. We aren’t connected on social media, I have no portal into her life other than what I occasionally see by accident from our mutual friends’ posts.

Staring into the Void does not quite understand that he was played. He was played for a fool. He was manipulated and subjected to emotional abuse. If Sierra spent that much time sharing her deepest and most intimate secrets with him and did not bother to tell him that she had a boyfriend, she is a witch. He ought to be angry. He ought to erase her from his memory bank. If he still whines and moans over someone who subjected him to that kind of torture, he has a problem. Polly does not catch this—I suspect that she wanted to tread very softly considering his fragility—but someone should tell him that he should not be pining after Sierra. He should not be wallowing in abjection and thinking that it was true love.

As it happens, Staring was wiped out by Sierra. He has however recovered enough to have a girlfriend, which is not a bad thing:

Right now, I’m at the crossroads of my life story. Staring down the path I choose and the road not taken. Peering into the possible Odyssey or the twisting nether. The Turning Point. I am horrified, because I love both my girlfriend and writing, and want to give up neither. Yet, as I examine my feelings and where I am, I feel wrong, disturbed somehow. 
His feelings are skewed because he does not see what happened with Sierra. Again, it’s a problem. It’s troubling. The writing in the last paragraph is not every encouraging either.

So, he can choose between pursuing his passion and getting a normal job.

Should I just simply surrender to the mundane and get a normal 9-5 management job, and marry the girl I know will always have my back? Or, do I take that road not taken, take a chance on myself, and forego all safety and comfort to experience some form of thrill and accomplishment?

Polly believed that he is depressed. She paints it more broadly than I would… he does have a girlfriend… but I cannot fault her:

I’m lingering in this land of extremes because you paint the world with the same strokes: You have black paint and white paint. Things are either glorious or useless. People are either ordinary or they’ve got sparks shooting from their fingertips. Seeing the world this way is a gift. It makes you a natural writer. You’re absurdly sensitive and very afraid of the real world. No wonder Disney World was literally the Happiest Place on Earth for you. When you’re pried away from mundane concerns and interactions, you feel like you have supernatural powers. Until the veil is lifted, and then you feel like it was all just a pretty dream and you’re just another self-deluded whelp begging for scraps from some master’s table.

Again, to her credit, Polly tells him to go out and get a job, one that he enjoys. After all, as Dr. Richard Mollica once said, and as I quote from time to time: “the best anti-depressant is a job.”

On the one hand, I want to tell you to humble yourself, to learn some trade you enjoy that will supplement your writing income and free you from financial dependence on your parents (and free you from the intense emotional servitude that comes with it). I want you to wipe the notion of yourself as “better” from your mind and recognize yourself as just another overly romantic young adult in the herd. I want you to stop privileging this magical Disney princess over the rest of womankind. I want to tell you that your black and white thinking is a manifestation of your depression and anxiety, a way to retreat into a private inner world where you can be safe and special enough to suit your tastes. But on the other hand, I want to acknowledge and even celebrate this romantic, bizarre, sparkly, absurd, black and white wonderland you’ve created in the confines of your mind. You can grow some pretty wild and beautiful flowers in the hothouse you’ve created, with enough rotting leaves and corpses and shit in the mix. By accepting and embracing your darkness and your dramatic impulses and your laserlike focus on love as salvation and your intensity and your obvious distaste for the mundane, you might access the parts of yourself that you already love and cherish the most. You might learn to focus and savor hard work and — eventually — create things that you can feel proud of.

Polly is going to encourage him to dream his dreams, but she also suggests that he find a job that does not leave him with enough time to write:

You’ll benefit from taking a shitty day job that leaves you with not enough time to write. You’ll gain a lot from reaching out to people you feel are both scary and not good enough for you yet, the way you reached out to me. You just need to remember that people don’t have to be gorgeous or special-seeming or popular or even all that clever to deserve your laserlike focus and attention. The more you humble yourself, and admit the enormous shame that goes along with being the kind of romantic you naturally are, and (in spite of all of this knowledge) defend your right to continue being the exact kind of hothouse flower you’ve always been (even as your girlfriend and your parents and the new friends you’re going to make offer up eye rolls and smirks at how INTENSE you can be sometimes), the more you’ll be able not only to connect with other people but also to focus on the hard work at hand.

Most importantly, she recommends that he connect with other people:

But you MUST step out into the world and dare to connect. Connecting includes recognizing other people as separate entities with separate feelings and lives that have nothing to do with you. Your Disney princess already had a boyfriend; you had no choice there. Those pedantic millennials around you have their own hopes and dreams and fantastical horizons inside that you can’t even begin to imagine from your casual interactions with them. Young artists like you tend to feel lonely and alienated until they learn to respect and empathize with the people around them, which includes accepting that people are very, very different from each other. The same basic elements exist inside everyone — longing, despair, shame — they just manifest themselves in very different ways.

And yet, after telling Staring to get a job and to connect with other people, Polly tells him to dump his girlfriend if she does not see how great a writer he is. We do not know anything about the girlfriend and for all we know, from our reading of his writing, she might well see him correctly. Besides his relationship with her is neither black or white; it is gray. I would not tell him to dump the girlfriend:

But if your girlfriend truly doesn’t see what’s amazing about you, and you don’t see her as anything but a security blanket, then you should move on. Whatever you decide on that front, you have to know that you’re someone who will be loved by lots of people, not just your loyal girlfriend or your family. You have to decide that your crazy demented self-important visions are full of magic and even though they’re close to your flaws, they’re also close to the heart of what drives you forward and makes you who you are. 

And then Polly concludes by telling him that he is as great as he thinks he is. Probably not the best advice. Especially if no one else in the world agrees. But it is probably necessary, given the circumstances:

Even when we start to transact cynically, we can make some sweet, real connection, almost by accident. And even when you reach out the way you did in your letter to me, feeling misguided, pathetic, and helpless, you’re reaching for a way to bring the magic and the darkness you feel in your heart into the real world. Above all, keep doing that. You are divine, and you are surrounded by a sea of divine souls. Let them know that you see their divinity. You have that gift. Take it seriously. Show them that even in the dark, something exotic and beautiful is growing.


Jack Fisher said...

Portrait of a Loser.

And he's no writer. Writer's write, even when the rejections notices keep piling up (and that's depressing). Since he denigrates 9-5 jobs it is a stone cold fact that he does not have the discipline to be a writer, which is a business of its own kind. If you're not writing for publishers who pay the bills, you're pretending to be a writer.

Sam L. said...

Concur with Jack. Staring ought to have a look at, a blog for writers, but there's no way to tell him that.

Jack Fisher said...

I love writing, but as a hobby only because I've got a real job and I'm not about to trade 90% of my income to see my name in print. Here's my Scottish accent:

"Aye did nott say that."

whitney said...

That's just sad. That's what happens when everyone is told they are unique. Seems better to tell kids about their similarities and wait for unique to become obvious with time

James said...

Well first getting a job might not be so easy for him, especially one that he enjoys and he can still seriously write. Also there is a reason that there is the stereo type of the poverty stricken writer, because it's true.
Also for every writer who makes it thousands who are as good or better do not. You don't send in a manuscript and an editor at a publishing house does a triple back flip screaming "my god we have a writer, quick send him a ton of money and an invitation to the latest artsy cocktail party" instead you'd better be good and very lucky. And if you've read this all the way through you know for a fact I am not a writer.

Jack Fisher said...

If this loser wants to write, he'll write, regardless of the job he's working. And all honest work is honorable, even if its clerking a Stop-n-Rob. The guy is a lazy whiner.

Ares Olympus said...

I think we're all agreed, with his parents and girlfriend, that this guy is unrealistic about becoming a successful professional writer, and that he should find a more stable source of income.

But a key question here for me comes down to what he's willing to give up for his passion, and half seriously, what sort of parasitic relationships he can maintain to stay off the streets while he's in training. Or later on, I picture George Peppard's character in Breakfast at Tiffany's, as a older once successful writer, supported by being good looking enough to inspire a rich socialite to pay his rent. So there are unexpected options, if you can maintain some dignity without the status of income.

Or if I go back to 25, I think of one book an english lit friend offered me to read after college, "A room of one's own", by Virginia Woolf, questioning of why all the great writers were men.
The title of the essay comes from Woolf's conception that, "a woman must have money and a room of her own if she is to write fiction". Woolf notes that women have been kept from writing because of their relative poverty, and financial freedom will bring women the freedom to write; "In the first place, to have a room of her own... was out of the question, unless her parents were exceptionally rich or very noble". The title also refers to any author's need for poetic license and the personal liberty to create art.

If she's right, then ordinary men have the same problem as inspiring young women.

As well if we're all wrong, then what? What if this 25 year old managed to find his muse and write a best seller before 30, and found himself with a monthly income (or investment income) that supported his lifestyle with no work. And even with income, the same questions remain - can he go outside of his otherwise reclusive existence and interact in a real world if he doesn't need to?

If he doesn't need a shitty job to make an honest living, what will challenge him to step out into messy reality, which is probably the place he needs to go as well, to gain material for his writing.

So needing money is a troublesome worry, but it may be after easy success that the real trouble comes.

James said...

You're exactly right. You either are a writer or you're not, your condition doesn't change that. On honorable work I'll add, not all jobs are honorable, but your efforts can and always should be, regardless of your job.
Ares: You're also "So needing money is a troublesome worry, but it may be after easy success that the real trouble comes." You may change your location (job, lifestyle, etc), but when you get there you still unpack the same problems you've always had.

James said...

I meant to say you're also right.

JPL17 said...

Poor "Staring Into the Void"! He seems to have at least 2 major problems: (1) he can't write (or at least not artfully, insightfully or in anything but cliches); and (2) his "existential crisis" is far too lame to provide good subject matter. I mean, if you're going to write about an existential crisis, it had better read something like THIS:

"I am a sick man.... I am a spiteful man. I am an unattractive man. I believe my liver is diseased. However, I know nothing at all about my disease, and do not know for certain what ails me. I don't consult a doctor for it, and never have, though I have a respect for medicine and doctors. Besides, I am extremely superstitious, sufficiently so to respect medicine, anyway (I am well-educated enough not to be superstitious, but I am superstitious). No, I refuse to consult a doctor from spite. That you probably will not understand. Well, I understand it, though. Of course, I can't explain who it is precisely that I am mortifying in this case by my spite: I am perfectly well aware that I cannot 'pay out' the doctors by not consulting them; I know better than anyone that by all this I am only injuring myself and no one else. But still, if I don't consult a doctor it is from spite. My liver is bad, well -- let it get worse!"

-- First paragraph of the novella "Notes from the Underground" by Fyodor Dostoyevsky (Contance Garnett translation)

Now THERE'S an existential crisis for you ... and a writer who knows how to write about one!

Stuart Schneiderman said...

Thank you... you're right... his crisis does not feel sufficiently existential and he is too much of a whiner to grasp it... then again, he's a millennial.