The writer is working on another book (Confessions of a Movie Autist), and already looking for ways to get it published. He (that’s me) is already “dreaming” of holding a shiny artifact at the end of all his labors, with great satisfaction. But I’ve already published seven or eight books (I typed “boobs” there, and was tempted to leave it). I know that the difference those shiny artifacts have made on my inner life is negligible to non-existent.
Still looking for the father’s blessing, for the approval I never got, that came far too late and was way too little.
A few months ago, I received an email from Jonathan Lethem in response to a piece I’d written on Philip K. Dick and autism. I printed up the email and put it on the wall over my desk. I can see it now. It starts with the words “something really special.”
Lethem is an established author whose books have been optioned as movies by David Lynch and David Cronenberg. He might as well be my own frustrated dream made flesh. (He also toys with the idea of being on the spectrum.) Receiving his blessing, the unequivocal praise of his emails (there was more than one), provided confirmation I was desperately seeking. When an author who’s universally recognized as being a significant literary figure recognizes me as a peer, does that mean that I am getting close to recognition? Not necessarily. I might be doomed to be a writer’s writer, recognized by his peers but not by the general public, at least not while alive (like John Fante, say).
Then of course there’s the possibility—impossible for my mind not to play with, like picking at a scab—that King Lethem might be able to open crucial doors for me, to usher me from obscurity to prominence (by writing a foreword to my latest book, for example).
A little after making contact with Lethem, I found this quote from him online:
I felt I ought to thrive on my fate as an outsider. Being a paperback writer was meant to be part of that. I really, genuinely wanted to be published in shabby pocket-sized editions and be neglected—and then discovered and vindicated when I was fifty. To honor, by doing so, Charles Willeford and Philip K. Dick and Patricia Highsmith and Thomas Disch, these exiles within their own culture. I felt that was the only honorable path.
Apparently Lethem, unlike me, received his father’s blessing when he needed it. He wasn’t only okay with obscurity, he considered it the only honorable path. Naturally, because it was what he wanted, he didn’t get it. So now we could envy each other’s pasture.
Lethem’s blessing can’t really substitute for the father’s blessing I never got. Lethem is only three years older than me, roughly the same as the difference between me and my older brother. My brother never gave me his blessing either, far from it. We were artist-rivals to the end, which came for my brother in 2010 when he died of a heroin overdose two months before he turned forty-eight.
My brother used to say that being an artist was “a license for obsession.” It was an obsession which eventually killed him.
I will be forty-seven next year and as I write these words, I feel my own time is running out. Either I kill this artistic obsession of mine, or it kills me.
Either I recognize and appreciate the honorability of obscurity—that this is the only path for me—and learn to love the darkness that defines whatever light I can pull out of me; or I am doomed to be eaten up from the inside by a chronic dissatisfaction which no amount of recognition—or of tardy blessings—will ever satisfy. It doesn’t matter how tightly you bolt the door after the horse has gone; it ain’t going to bring the horse back.
My horse has long gone. I am an exile in my own culture because that’s what the prodigal son is: an exile. I am the horse that bolted, and with damn good reason.
I wasn’t made to be ridden.
Yesterday I was “chatting” with the actor/filmmaker Matthew Modine on Twitter about his short films and after a few encouraging responses I sent him a link to the first part of this piece. He tweeted back that he had to go offline to “digest this.” I recount this not for the pleasures of namedropping but because it echoes and confirms the Lethem anecdote above: at least some people who have achieved mainstream success are drawn to the fringes, just as much as some of us fringe-dwellers dream of hitting the mainstream.
I have long thought that getting “established” would give me more freedom to do what I want to do, creatively. That and meet movie stars who’ve worked with John Sayles, Robert Altman, Jonathan Demme, Christopher Nolan, and (my personal bête noire) Stanley Kubrick. Fuck yeah! Holy starstruck, Batman! Put that saddle on and ride me! (Just kidding.)
Actually, as this story shows, I can already do all that and still live on the fringe, far from the barnyard. It may mean I have less influence or social “clout,” but creatively there’s way more freedom here. Freedom to create means freedom to try new things, which means freedom to fail. The more of an expectant audience (“fan base”) we have, the more handlers, agents, and managers are invested in what we do, the harder it is to fail creatively.
Fringe life has more creds too, as Lethem knows. All artists have at least some subversive drive, and while getting established may provide more of a platform to subvert things, also means that the status quo doesn’t see you as much of a challenge, since it has decided it can use you. Being established means becoming part of the establishment, you dig?
Maybe that’s why Matthew Modine hangs out on the fringes, with people like me?
Matthew Modine makes short films, including one called “Somebody,” in sympathy with the Occupy movement. Like some other Hollywood stars, he seems to identify with the 99% oppressed—the fringe, which paradoxically is the bulk of the social demographic, while the mainstream-elite is just a razor-thin band running through it, or maybe a sword hanging over its head. His sympathies are with the little people, even though (I presume) he gets invited to the same parties as the fat-cat plutocrats who rule the earth, making him apparently one of the one percent.
More intriguing (and promising) for me, Matthew’s daughter, Ruby, made a short film with Vin & Omi called “Living in a Bubble” to raise awareness about Asperger’s syndrome. This came up when I saw a short interview Modine did on human consciousness and asked him what he knew about autism. Now Matthew Modine and I are tweeting about a very specific fringe, one I’ve chosen to place myself in, not without misgivings. Identity politics is still politics, and I try to steer clear of identifying with any cause or condition (and certainly not an “illness”—please). But raising awareness is my métier, and at least some auties I consider to be “my people.” We are the other 1%.
(After I wrote this, I received a tweet from Matthew in response to the Synesthesia video I made with Mark Lawn, “Intense Worlds.” His comment was brief but encouraging, and it included the word “crazy.”)
Creating a virtual bridge between myself and “the world out there” is like introducing my inner world to the outer world. The artist is the public “me” face which the autist “I” created to have dealings with the 99% of Neurotypica. And now it is.
For me “the world” has always been most concretely and enticingly represented by “Hollywood.” The real world = the dream factory—how ironic is that?
But however you slice it, the screen I have been staring at my whole life is suddenly staring back.
The starstruck boy is striking back.