Is it strange to reminisce about something, someone you barely knew said to you once? Or is this the most common thing around?
It’s well documented that our memories have a bias towards negative reinforcement. Criticism is remembered much easier than praise. It seems to have a function of telling you something useful. Though often it says more about the person doing the criticizing than having anything to do with you.
This, I suppose, is why I remember so clearly an offhanded phrase directed at me by a co-worker.
We worked together in a restaurant in NYC. She was an open, tough, small statured Asian American. I did not know her well. She was the garde-manger and we worked in a very young kitchen. Besides the head chef and baker, the average age was probably 24. So it happened, all the obvious insecurity, all the nerves and decisions and making ones way up in the world, this girl (let’s call her Anne) became the person to pick on. Any screw up or slow down, insults and sighs were sent her way. If I remember correctly, a few of the guys would call her short round, the Scrappy asian kid from the Goonies. I guess I would’ve thought it was more racist if I didn’t remember that kid as being awesome.
Though I never thought all this picking on was fair, since it seemed quite clear to me, every day, she had the most work to do. Yeah, sometimes she’d mess up or not get to something, but it was because she literally had more work. Anyway, I felt for her and I liked Anne. She took the abuse with dignity, she would give minor excuses but she never got wrapped up in them, she went about her day. And apparently she had slept with my friend. Well, maybe not my friend but the guy I liked the best in the kitchen.
This is the basic necessary context for trying to understand why she might have said what she said to me. I don’t really know but context important.
One night I went out for a drink with the whole crew.
My friend didn’t like to eat, he’d get to the bar, drink fast and hard on an empty stomach. Anne was cuddling up to his shoulder. He seemed oblivious. We were all co-workers, that is, strangers who know things about each other. Anne, for instance, knew that I wanted to be a writer, and halfway into our second beer, she looked at me with tight focus, she grabbed my friend around the arm and said; “You have to watch out for him, he’s a writer, you can’t trust him”.
Now like I said in the beginning, criticism more often has something to do with the person doing the criticizing than it does with the criticized. This is what makes me think often about her statement, because it doesn’t seem like it’s that. What she is saying is not about me, and it’s not about her. It’s more a general statement of belief. This is what made me find it so interesting. Up to that point I had never really considered the possibility that the way I thought about the world was untrustworthy. It’s like if somebody told you out of the blue: baseball players, like Freud said about the Irish, were immune to psychoanalysis. Somehow in a weird way it makes sense, while at the same time seeming like total coke brained nonsense.
I remember at first being taken aback. In my personal relationships I’m better than gold. I’m no gossip, and I don’t lie. I also don’t have a plethora of personal relationships, so what would I know.
But maybe she was simply talking about protecting oneself. People can insult you, but only a writer could expose you for the true emotional mess that you are. Ahh, Anne, I would never!
Or would I?
But maybe it’s not that either. It’s the writer, they have one foot out the door. They don’t get invested in your schemes. They get on the tennis court and they agree to play but whether they win or lose, you don’t see that they’re playing another different game entirely.
Sitting in a bar in a little town, I was talking to a local, drinking my beer and getting his backstory. Previous marriages etc. At one point, he wondered why I was so interested. He had no problem telling me but you know, usually people don’t care. I had informed the bartender of my writerly ambitions; she said, “Oh he’s a writer, he’s doing research”. Dear reader I swear to you at that moment I had no such idea in my head, his backstory was frankly, boring. Well, it was fine. There was one bit that had to do with how he met a woman at a motorcycle race, and she helped him from drinking beer so he won the race. It’s not Lawrence of Arabia.
But you see, I did remember it anyway, and wrote it. Even though, if in that moment, you had told me that, no, really I was doing research and would use that anecdote someday, I woulda scrunched my brow very suspiciously. Even we can’t be sure when we are writing or not.
The writing I like and think about is probably 1 part actually writing it down, 1 part ambition and interest in the world, 1 part intelligence and creativity, and 3 parts narrative distance from one’s actions in the world. There are, I think, plenty of people who live their lives with this narrative distance who are not actual writers. And there are plenty of people who are writers, they type lots of words at least, they write to a direct line within themselves, without any narrative distance.
Now perhaps I’m setting up a half-true distinction between what I might call self expression, and that of writing or literature or journalism. But I’m trying to get to the crux of that untrustworthiness, which is public and manipulative and soul pinching. Those descriptors, mere words, which might put a person in a box.
I think one of the most underrated films of last year was War Machine. At least it was visibly underrated probably twofold in that it never got a theatrical release, and was very clearly what it was. But what it was, was often brilliant. Smartly describing the nature of how a war is run, through the character of its leadership. Brad Pitt plays general McMahon, not accurately if you watch the real life interviews, but cogently. So believably the fiction seems more true than the truth ever could be.
The film had one of the best dialogues/monologues of last year, one of our wonderful up and coming actors Keith Stanfield, wonders what the fuck ‘heroic restraint’ is. It’s a very subtle and difficult thing to do, we the audience, who are not soldiers, we get it. Don’t shoot innocent people. But soldiers are not trained in diplomacy, they are trained to be soldiers. Like that police officer who shot that kid in Arizona and had “You’re fucked” written on the side of his rifle. These men are not trained for nuance.
Anyway, that film basically features what I’m talking about. A General trusts a writer, and it undoes him (although of course, the war in Afghanistan was begging to be undone, and all kinds of people, everywhere, could see that).
A writer undoes a General, simply by showing him for the flawed human being he is. Like anyone is. In the realm of being a General, Micheal Hastings, the writer, could no more have lead an army than capt kitty cuteface, but it doesn’t matter, because when you’re playing our game, we always win.
Other people go about the business of living their lives, they can forget why they’re doing it, and how often that why, when it’s really deconstructed, can look outrageous and silly. A writer never forgets the why, in that way never stops feeling ridiculous and slightly ashamed and wrong to see the world this way. The only thing left is to wait and watch. Like a crocodile with a vendetta. Peter Pan is the so called hero of his story, believing like little boys do that heroism is the fight between right and wrong. The reptile doesn’t think in terms like that, they sit in the sun, waiting, making sure transgressors get their comeuppance. And that can be anyone, maybe you too, one day, Peter.
Or, maybe, this is just how we want to think of ourselves.
Maybe Anne thought she was paying me a compliment.
The poisonous frog is given the compliment of not being eaten for its colorful and vibrant spots.
That writing might be a very powerful tool to have in one’s arsenal, seems correct … except to the writer.
Writing, especially essayistic or cultural writing, is much too reflective to have any kind of pungent nowness. If a person or company read something about themselves which seemed unsympathetic or even unfair, they have the easiest response in the world “Well, say what you want, but I’m not like that now”. The natural and fickle way the world moves on. The crocodile sits, it may have powerful jaws, but it’s a one trick act. There are far more dangerous animals in the wild, not to mention the most dangerous of all; a human being with their mind set on something.
I wonder, how far can I take this crocodile analogy?
Maybe Anne meant that because writers need people for their writing, when they’re around people they’re attempting to blend in. The cook or the prostitute or the banker, when they are not doing those things, they go back to being just people. But the writer, around people, is always a writer. Barely sticking their nose over the water. Anne was simply acknowledging that she could see me. Pointing out to the other birds, to be aware. In this analogy trust is very simple. It’s that you can say whatever you want whenever you want. The waters of the lake are perfectly transparent. When does such a thing ever happen, writer in the room or not?
Or, maybe, she was talking about how if the writer sets their mind to something they can sit down and make any analogy almost make sense. They can make anything almost make sense if they try. Even though a writer can never, and is quite clearly not a large scaly backed reptile with a muscular tail and multiple overlapping forms of eyelids.
Let me attempt a kind of conclusion.
I’m still not sure what Anne meant. Maybe I was right in the beginning and it was simply a piece of personal criticism. She had met another writer who had screwed her over. It was something personal that had happened in her life.
Though I’m suspicious of this answer, cause how often does that happen to a young girl in her 20’s or early 30's? An older politician or another writer who’d been in contest with other writers, yes, I could see that. But a young cook?
Although, maybe she was secretly a writer too. Her varying forms of toughness and vulnerability. From what little I learned about her, she seemed no slouch intellectually. A hard skin for the criticisms of others (like a crocodile, ha).
She was telling my friend subconsciously; watch out for him so you don’t watch out for me. This tactic can work I think, but in my experience, being that clever more often works against you.
Ambition is best tempered with humor.
Well, let’s answer my initial question.
Writers, can you trust em?
I don’t see why not.
We’re no worse than anyone else. We have all the same stakes in the world that you do.
And yet, I can’t help but think to myself that Anne is one of the smartest people I’ve ever met.