Like a Bull

We need to have a talk, friends. It’s about that whole “Scourge of Relatability” thing from about a month ago, and which keeps threatening to pop up in various conversations and high school and college classes with professors who are entirely too smug about a writer from The New Yorker (“The New Yorker, class!”) validating their misinterpretation of a neologism.

I am hesitant to link to the post because, like so many other (ultimately banal) pieces unhappy with The Way Things Seem to Be Going, it doesn’t accomplish anything; it does not prescribe any action or truly seek to understand why, precisely, Things Are the Way They Are — why people are using this darned word and not experiencing Art the way it is supposed to be experienced. It seems odd that my generational cohort is incessantly mocked for our need to constantly express ourselves (often via Twitter or Facebook) when these Boomers and Gen-Xers seem to do the same thing, just via a slightly more high-profile platform. But here it is.

So. There is no way to unpretentiously state this, but: I am a writer. I tell stories for a living; sometimes well, sometimes poorly. But in all my efforts* I try to find some small nugget of Truth.

This is the goal of storytelling, no? To impart some Truth to your audience, be it one they already know but have yet to hear told in your unique fashion, or one that they don’t yet realize, but when they see it in your words their heart throws itself against your ribs in ecstatic recognition. This is the reason we gathered around fires to listen to scops and bards, why we paid hard-won pennies to see Shakespeare, why we wait in line at midnight to buy books.

Essential to this Truth is, as Ms. Mead strangely doesn’t seem to understand, relatability. It is imperative that some part of your audience be able to recognize in your story, in your characters, some part of what makes us human. If you cannot find that spark of humanity in your characters, that one thought or action that will give every single reader or viewer** a flash of recognition and understanding, you have failed as a storyteller.

This does not mean your characters must be “likable.” There seems to be much conflation between “likability” and “relatability,” which might, admittedly, stem from the latter’s newness. So let us differentiate now, once and for all. Infinite Jest‘s Orin Incandenza is not a likable man. He’s a pathological liar, a cad, a bully. But there are pieces of him to relate to, be it an intense entomophobia or a broken heart that never healed or the delight of discovering a talent you never dreamed you had. The two main characters of FX’s beautiful, sweetly caustic comedy You’re the Worst are, as the title advertises, The Worst. But they are also damaged in a way many of us are, attempting to heal in a way most of us do, and that is what makes the show not only bearable but a delight to watch.

If relatability truly is some “scourge,” as Ms. Mead alleges, and not a valid metric by which to measure the success of an artistic endeavor, then what, exactly, is the point of telling a story at all? What is the point of Art, if not to show us, for however small a period of time, that we are not alone in this world?

*Well, most. Sometimes it’s hard to find the Truth in a 200-word piece about some ass-clenchingly awful sitcom.

**Who is not a sociopath.

Table of Contents

GMAIL DRAFTS: A NOVEL

Chapter 1: Subject: “Hey”
(Breakup e-mail number one)

Chapter 2: Subject: “Open position?”
(Job tip from six months ago never acted upon)

Chapter 3: Subject: “In case I get hit by a bus…”
(Notes to loved ones in the event of accidental death)

Chapter 4: Subject: “So…”
(Breakup e-mail number two)

Chapter 5: Subject: “OMG”
(Abandoned screed against Friend 1, to Friend 2)

Chapter 6: Subject: “I’m sorry”
(Suicide note)

Chapter 7: Subject: “GIF List”
(Self-explanatory)

Chapter 8: Subject: “FOR FUCKING REAL?!”
(Abandoned screed against Friend 2, to Friend 1)

Chapter 9: Subject: “I miss you”
(Getting-back-together e-mail number one)

Chapter 10: Subject: “(None)”
(123 words of a short story that will never be completed)

The Way the World Ends

This is the thing you scream, at first, in your mind, hurling the thought towards Brooklyn as hard as you possibly can, all-caps; thundering, you hope, across the night sky, straight into their temporal lobe.

This is the thing that echoes in your mind for hours, refreshing when you least expect it, the sound behind the pressure in your eyes.

This is the thing you mutter, in your mind, when you see old voicemails you will not, cannot, delete; that you will not, cannot, listen to again.

This is the thing you whisper, months later, in your mind, when you see them across the room, as you near each other with sad smiles of recognition; fearful they’ll hear you, wondering if they share the same fear.

“I miss you.”

This Is Not a Metaphor

Once upon a time, there was an Unstoppable Force. She was a young Force, perhaps too young to truly deserve her name; but she had not met an obstacle in this life she could not overcome.

Once upon a time, there was an Immovable Object. He was older (he had seen a thing or two), ossified in his isolation, convinced that there was no Force in this life strong enough to relieve him of his perch– and yet not without the hope and fear that one would appear.

Once upon a time, Unstoppable and Immovable met, driven into each other’s orbit by the vagaries of chance, or maybe fate, as one of them secretly believed. They had some drinks, and for a few hours, they forgot their names, each delirious in the light of having found something so like themselves, down to the least boson, to the last quark. The world did not end; in fact, it was as though a new world had been given being, born out of the quantum entanglements of their improbable proximity.

The Unstoppable Force glanced off the Immovable Object once, only to find herself pulled back by a force perhaps stronger than herself.

For a time, Unstoppable and Immovable sat as they were. Unstoppable enjoyed the Object’s solidity; Immovable found the weight pleasant. They waited, content, until the friction became burning, until the weight became too much to bear.

What happens when an Unstoppable Force meets an Immovable Object?

They continue as they have, striving to be proved wrong: they are not as they have always thought themselves. Striving not to break the other, but to be broken.

Generation Stop

I am tired.

I am tired of hearing that I am shiftless, that I think myself special when really I am not, that it’s my own fault the world “isn’t meeting [my] expectations.” I am tired of everyone on the internet telling me I know nothing, that I am entitled, that I am lazy. I am tired of self-important magazines and bullshit marketers coming up with abhorrently stupid names for my generation. (Call me a “Millennial” and it will be the last word you speak.) I am tired of so many parents complaining about their children using the very technology their children have created.

You know what, Boomers (and a few Gen X-ers who got busy early on)?

Maybe you shouldn’t have created a world in which everyone feels pressured to go to college, where following your dream is the Ultimate Good. Maybe you shouldn’t have fostered an economic ecosystem in which a bachelor’s degree is basically a requirement to find a job that pays minimum wage. Maybe you should rethink your company’s stance on unpaid internships that serve only to broaden the gulf between the talented poor and the undeserving rich.

Maybe you should recognize that the reason most of my generation is graduating without gainful employment lined up is because you will have to stay in the job you currently have for the rest of your life, because Social Security will run out before you can retire and you foolishly invested most of your savings in tech stocks that had worse odds than a Vegas slot machine. (This is also why we had to sign away the next 30 years of our fiscal lives at age 17: because you invested our college fund, too.)

Maybe you should understand that those of us who have by some miracle found a decent-paying job in our desired field will remain where we are, at the bottom of the totem pole, for perhaps our entire careers, because upward mobility has simply vanished. Maybe you have never been at risk of falling into unemployment, a state the majority of us have already found ourselves in and still bear financial and psychological scars from, and so will never know the icy clutch of panic every time your boss asks to speak with you.

Or maybe, just maybe, you should shut the hell up.

That Nameless Fear

The anxiety begins as a buzz nearly indistinguishable from the effects of a couple glasses of wine. Its source is somewhere inside your chest, possibly your heart, whose beat is currently cycling between the thrum of a hummingbird’s wings and the slow clop of a Clydesdale. The buzzing slowly fans out, up and through your clavicle and into your shoulders, down into your arms and finally into the fingers, moving restlessly, compulsively pressing the buttons on your phone. It snakes into your belly and wriggles like a living thing, your stomach churning with all the acid in the world. It crosses the blood-brain barrier and settles in your amygdala, activating the very worst of all the fears nested therein: You are unlovable, you are unwanted, now and forever. And all at once the buzzing turns to burning, a raging river of fire slicked with oil. The corrosive metallic taste in the back of your throat will not be relieved by any liquid, nature-made or not.

There is something wrong with you.

Set Ways

A couple months ago, I had the good fortune of being invited onto the Justified set. I got several stories out of it for my employer, but haven’t been able to really express what I got out of the experience. This was what I wrote on the plane ride from LA to Chicago (with a few minor edits and additions from subsequent interviews), basically a straight account of my day so I wouldn’t forget anything, but it approximates what I wanted to get out there.

The mountains aren’t quite right for the “deep dark hills of Eastern Kentucky”