Modus Vivendi (orginally published in Historical Inaccuracies)
“Let me tell you what’s been on m’mind, mate. Devil babies. Little tykes all cold and emotionless gangin’ up on nannies and hackin’ ‘em to bits.”
“Everything all right, mate?”
“Been watchin’ me own. Got the reverend comin’ over tonight.”
“Sooner’s better. Sod havin’ devil babies about your life.”
“How’s rev to handle all thirteen? Are you workin’ in shifts?”
“Me and the misses’ll slip a little sleep in their cocoa.”
“So when Rev comes ‘round ‘is biggest problem’ll be havin’ the bleedin’ demons hear ‘im over all the snoring.”
“There’s always a rub.”
“Good counsel as always.”
“Psshaw! Gives me purpose.”
Thirteen pairs of grubby little eyelids slipped like a lush, flutter flittered a bit, and closed.
“Luvvie, it’ll be the devil’s time pickin’ ‘em up. Like dropped flies, they are.”
Number nine, whose grip had never been firm to begin with, tumbled from his roost on the family heirloom (a pawn shop chandelier).
Father was already diving for the catch. “Don’t worry it; I’ve got ‘im.” He tossed the boy onto the sofa. Already there were five asleep on it, moptops with nasal passages snoring like banshees. “Damn fine catch that, eh?”
Mother stepped her apron-body over a little one sprawled on the floor, and had to lean close to father to speak as the thumping and tumbling and godawful snores put out more than enough of their own.
“Here’s a thought. What with the factories foldin’ up I should think a good choice would be to sell the lot off to the American cinema, provided Reverend can’t cleanse the devil off their souls.”
“The lot? Maybe keep a few?”
“And never sleep a peaceful night again?”
“Point made, Luv.”
Religiously hearty poundings pounded the door.
Father hurried to answer.
The gaunt figure of Reverend Slip stood centered in the doorway of the humble dwelling. The little flat square of white below his pointy Adam’s apple was a beacon against batwing robes.
“Show me the ‘eathens,” was all. No greeting, just “Show me the ‘eathens,” and moved right inside like a line with legs.
“Wait just now,” Father tossed, turning after him. “They’ve been brought up proper. This’s just one of them aborigines.”
Reverend Slip dropped a heavy duffel for loud effect. “If Satan could hold them at all then they’re a far fetch from righteousness. Where’s tea, Mother?”
Her hand flew to her mouth.
And as a matter of fact there did issue from the reverend one sharp, audible intake of air. “No tea?” Looking at Father like a man suddenly betrayed he blurted, “Biscuits at least?”
“Well what with the kids I forgot to kettle!” Mother exclaimed, trading worried glances with Father.
“Some things you simply do not forget, Mother,” Father said, then offered a placatory smile toward the reverend.
“How am I to function? You invite me into your home—how can I be the savior of your children if you can’t even observe the social graces? I know beggars much poorer than you who I can always count on to give with joy to the church!”
“Tea, Mother,” Father urged, nodding toward the tiny kitchen. She skittered off, muttering and mumbling at herself as she dug deeply in her apron pockets for little packets of sugar.
“Have you biscuits, then?”
Father swallowed nervously.
“M’God,” muttered Reverend Slip. During which (accompanied by a rancid odor that screwed noses up for blocks around) in the kitchen, having just stepped out of a particularly narrow shadow, popped Big Red itself, except it wasn’t red and was rather sensitive about racial stereotyping. Rather a short one actually. Unmistakably evil.
Reverend rushed the kitchen hoping ahead of time the stench hadn’t come from a mishap with a biscuit substitute. As the reverend’s reaction to such an unmistakably evil presence—“What the bloody hell’s this?”—was voicing, Father was hoping that feigning ignorance might make the tackily dressed bugger leave off. The devil, to clarify.
“Bloody ‘ell!” it rasped. “Anybody in the human race not daft? Satan!”
Man can’t depend on anything anymore, Father fretted. He rubbed his bulbous nose. “Yes, well, you’re—”
“I know I’m late! Lost me head in the U.S. God, America! Bloody piss me off, I don’t mind telling you. Now I’m here. Let’s have to.”
“Now waitaminute,” Reverend said. “What’s this?”
“Eh?” said Satan.
“A direct confrontation? I’m not here for that!”
“Stop chokin’ your scrot. Heard devil babies were about, came to give a look. Curiosity, you know. Vested interests and such. Observation only, Reverend.”
“See to it, then!”
“Show some care, Rev,” hissed Mother. “Just might piss ‘im off.”
“Right, where would that leave us?” Father put to him.
“Pretty buggered, I would think,” trilled Satan, strolling out to have a look at its alleged progeny.
“These aren’t babies! A friggin’ rugby team!”
“Some may be a bit big for their age,” Mother defended.
“They don’t even look like me.” It nudged ol’ Mother with its elbow. “Eh, Mother?”
“You be havin’ tea as well,” Father interjected starchily.
“No sugar, Mum, that’s the lass.” And it patted her doughy rump to send her off. “To business then,” Satan said, drawing the two men further into the sitting room.
“I am here strictly to establish paternity,” the reverend reminded assertively, adding with a terribly hopeful eye, “Unless you simply want to own up right here?”
“They really don’t look a thing like me.” It frowned. “No, go to it, Rev.”
Father hawed a bit. “What, uh, what if they happen to—”
“Not to worry. I make it a point to always travel with damn fine cigars on me.”
By which time even the eyes of dogs and parakeets in the neighborhood welled up. Those in the devil’s immediate presence had tried a discreet show of it, but finally Father had to ask, “Whatever ‘tis you’re givin’ off could you tone it down a bit?” There were some annoyances a man shouldn’t have to deal with in his own house, by God.
“Do I offend?” It smiled a coquettish, broad, cigar stained smile at Reverend Slip. It puppeted one of the sleeping children, a girl, to open a window as there wasn’t a single one open, at which point the atmosphere of the squalid house rushed to flood the entirety of the rest of the world, leaving Father’s flat somewhat fresh and comfortably cool. Consequently, a particular breed of monkey that monitors the activities of Satan unanimously decided to forego evolution, ensuring a complete lack of scented toilet paper in the world after the house-apes blew off. Their reasoning: Why give the devil its due? Several parakeets whose owners constantly talked to them committed suicide within moments of the window opening.
Father breathed deeply. He heard the quick aerosol can of country potpourri in the kitchen: Mother hoping the spray would take to this newly freshened air as it was the only freshened air the flat had recently entertained.
“Tea, Father?” Satan smugly inquired.
“Shall we!” Reverend Slip, unsteeled, unsettled, and quite extraordinarily put out about the entire situation, straight-lined to the children. It did not do for the Misses of the house to be spraying potpourri on air freshened by the devil.
He peered closely at the sleeping faces. One particularly showed signs of evil, muttering incoherent phrases and unnatural numerical chants, the middle lad, Reverend surmised from the boy’s advanced size. Middle’s the best place for corrupting behind and ahead. The reverend indicated with his nose for Father and Satan to give note. “What is this, yes?”
Father coughed and spoke into his hand. “Stocks.”
A tick developed beneath the reverend’s right cheek. “Again, Father?”
Aghast, Father glanced between Rev and Satan indecisively a moment, sputtered something almost apologetic for destroying what was the Rev’s first sure thing, then, gripped with the sudden parental insight and resolve of placing blame where it lay, hurried across and rapped the sleeping boy once across the head to close him off.
And as mum marched primly forward she exhorted chirpily, “Tea?”
Well, the room did brighten a bit, didn’t it?
As they drank (without conversation), Satan couldn’t help noticing Mother’s rather conspicuous way of peering over her cup’s rim each time it took a swallow. In a huff, it acknowledged her rudeness.
“Where’s yer tongue?” she said directly.
Father and Reverend glanced her way.
“He’s got no tongue.” Damned if she’d be made to feel untoward in her own home for pointing out someone’s improper anomalies. “Had it when he came in.”
“Must’ve swallowed it!” Satan snapped. “Daft ass Brits.”
His most manly, world-wearied sigh came from Father, who set his cup in the callused palm of his hand and proclaimed, “We take tea proper in this house when we take it.”
“Bloody well came in with it,” Mother was saying to Rev, who nodded his support.
“Shall I cough it up?” It hawked a drag, eyeing all. No one responded.
In silence they drank on.
After tea, Satan said, “I’ll be off now,” and unmistakably meant that there was no reason it should even begin to think those children were its.
“Are you quite certain?” Father asked. “A lot of ‘em here. Been off a bit, they have.”
“Definitely a good right number, and they’re an unpleasant lot. Can I fault them their genes? But realistically, how could they be mine when they’re all bloody tranquilized? Don’t you think they’d have had enough about them to hack you to bits before you could slip ‘em all the mickey?”
Reverend Slip, not one to refute logic, zipped up his duffel sack. “Take example in my utter lack of self-deception in the face of things irrefutable,” he said to Father.
“All the best,” Satan tipped with a cordial nod.
Reverend ignored it. “Be taking my leave. Father. Mother.”
Gone, like a line with legs.
A bit of a scene now. Mum and Dad entertaining Satan--without, recall, biscuits--and thirteen very economically taxing progeny in a little flat on West Buttles. What to do, what to do? (“Stop whizzing!” Reverend shouted trying to dodge all the crying dogs congregated outside this West Buttles home.) “Can you make ‘em all politicians then?” Mother asked in an unusual fit of genius.
Satan seemed startled not to have proposed this itself.
Father goggled Mother’s way in astonishment.
“The lot?” Satan inquired.
“Well, not all at once, I suppose.”
“Sellin’ off our children on installment plan?” Father considered this a moment then asked of Satan, “How much soul we talkin’, me and the misses to you?”
“No money down, laddie.” With an overly large, inhumanly pleased smile that showcased each of its brown teeth, Satan winked. “Politicians I consider an even trade.” It took a cigar from its plaid vest pocket and bit the nub off.
Mother smiled inwardly across her slumbering lot, proud, proud. The wafting of country potpourri seemed so much richer now, as though the air recycled and became a step fresher each time, and would confidently keep doing so. Why, soon as this Satan business was over she had a mind to run out and purchase another can.
Father, as only fathers do, slapped then rubbed his stinging thighs to indicate the pleasurable completion of a rather wary situation. He, too, felt a surge of pride knowing without doubt his children would grow up to be respectable, profitable citizens, politicians no less, although, knowing Satan, there’d be some hidden loop and one of them would turn out to be a lawyer, but even that was livable and Father breathed his own short sigh of relief along with an amicable nod of the head, communicating that the boys at the pub would never believe this.
“Believe you me, lad,” he responded to the devil, “you’re a fair shakes fairer than me lender.”
Today we talk about intent because intent shapes your project. What should the consumer have achieved by the time she gets to "The End"? Entertainment, education, edification, revelation--all these and more are the raw materials for your mold. Doesn't matter if you're keeping to a simple design or going Imhotep, intent guides your hand and intent guides your audience. So let's examine why the hell you decided to do what you did.
(1) Make 'em laugh. Let's be blunt: comedy ain't like nothin' if it ain't like fuckin'. Flirt, tease, stroke, climax, rest, smile, move on. If you'd like to make people laugh you need to acknowledge that comedy--like sex--is a participatory event. A sexual partner should feel from you that you're at temple; a comedic audience the same: let them inside you, and you in them. People love it when they're in on the joke with you. The anticipation of a laugh is a wonderful thing. Our best comedians are able to tell you what the punchline is even before they say it: there's a wicked twinkle to the eye, a perplexed raise of a brow, a deadpan reaction to an outlandish premise, maybe even they laugh at how ridiculous the punchline is to let you know they're riding sidesaddle with you. Your comedic fiction, then, should be less about "Look what I can do!" and more "nudge nudge, wink wink." Establish a mental rhythm of humor, non, humor, non, so readers stay primed and not exhausted. Your intent here is to let them savor the joy of laughter. That, my loves, is worthy as fuck.
(2) Edification. Humanity is a wonderful beast. Let's go deeper: Existence is a wonderful beast; it's grotesquely beautiful, beautifully grotesque, painful as fuck but giving zero fucks about that because it's the only game in town. Works that uplift us are rarely formulaic (note: unless Sandra Bullock's involvement is confirmed. Sandra Bullock gets everything a pass). Uplift doesn't mean happy fuzzy joyful orgasm. Think Beloved. Think The Unbearable Lightness of Being. Think Things Fall Apart or Deathbird Stories. What do these disparate works have in common? The truth. You, my loves, can handle the truth. I wrote a book called By All Our Violent Guides that has all manner of heinous things happen in it, but it's perhaps my most affirming book because when you get to the end of it you know that no matter what happens in life...you keep going. You don't give up. None of us can, will or do. Is impossible. Because whatever we are, whatever makes us us, is everlasting. It's been here before us, it'll be here after us. We're a community of a trillion pieces forming a single hope: that Truth go on. You can't actively lie to yourself writing this kind of book, and you can't hide either. Know that your reader is strong, smart, and compassionate, and use your words to help them chisel through to the other side. Be thou not afraid to write us into a good night.
(3) Entertainment. What's entertainment? Everything. That's entertainment. There's something for everybody and a body for every thing. Entertainment is all of the above, but think of it as having a high mark, not the lowest common denominator. What that mental height does is raise your work from the pure realm of "buy this" to the more participatory "try this." If your intent is merely to entertain (and, really, there's no such thing as merely entertaining since everything is meant to entertain; the definition of entertainment is not "eyes closed, mouth open") then think of the work as a Thanksgiving buffet. Not everything you've prepared is going to tickle all the buds on any single individual's tongue. There will be suck-ass cranberry sauce right next to sweet potato pie. The overall meal, though, will be satisfying. Why? Because you blended your spices, varied the tastes, and even stuck those weird booties on the turkey's feet. Before you embarked on this project you had a vision of us sitting back rubbing our bellies with smiles on our faces. How you got us there matters. We need to feel sated and cared for. In the immortal words of Bell Biv Devoe--and I'm pretty sure they were offering highly-regarded turkey cooking advice--"Smack it up, flip it, rub it down." Whatever your intention, make sure there is a part of us that wants to come back for more.
I've spoken bloggishly on this basic theme before. What is the gift built into the DNA of each particular piece of art that you present that only you can impart like a whisper in an ear? That's your intent. It's your compass on what will be an unpredictable journey of your own artistic discovery, because the mind never knows exactly where it wants to go when you give it a bit of gas. No matter how organized and diagrammed you are, it's not one of those programmable, driverless cars. It doesn't run on ability alone. It needs you. Your drive, your vision, your willingness to engage your readers in silent conversation. Think of it this way: Hell must have a helluva road crew to deal with all those good intentions. By the time you scrawl "The End" on your latest work, you, my friend, are ultimately the supervisor we report to.
Eventually everybody posts about giving up. If you follow a single creative person you know this. The message is usually--and rightfully--don't give up. Take a break but come back to it. Darkest before the dawn and you rock harder than you know.
I'm not going to do that.
I'm going to say let that shit go and find your bliss elsewhere. Not everything needs to be done. Not by me, not by you. There's something about the artistic mind that likes beating the shit out of itself, so while you may think you're on a hiatus of new discovery there's a deep-seated part of that lizard brain of yours that keeps pounding at the door from the sliver of light you left: that hope of yours that you'll come back to "it" some day. "It" can be an individual project, it can be your entire form; you'll set it nicely aside, as many a blog will tell you, and the two of you will enjoy a reunion that's just barely non-sexual. What you're doing here is this: You're giving yourself the no-win scenario of "I don't want you but I'll come back to you," which is living entirely on your art's terms and not yours.
Sometimes what you're doing will consume you and you have to tell it it doesn't have the right to do that. Maybe you worked on a piece for 3 years and you feel so little joy for it that it borders on hatred. Let it go. There are more ideas inside you than you'll ever get to. Recognize that your art will test you. It'll often feel like a no-win scenario. What then, my friend?
Change the conditions of the test. Say no to yourself more often and--here's the kicker--be cool with that. An idea is a precious thing only to an extent. After that, if it drags more than uplifts, it's a burden.
Let shit go. If you come back to it, fine. If not, equally fine. The no-win scenario is all about feeling trapped, but that's only if you play by the presumptions and suppositions of a test which you yourself created.
Intimacy. I love being inside folks (behave). Opened emotional worlds offer a level of trust that elevates the simplest shared experiences into things of enduring beauty. Things of human glory. Simply knowing that a person sharing themselves with you will not hurt you creates a sense of security that ripples your entire being.
Books do this. Is there anything more alchemical than seeing markings on a page or screen and, through them, knowing you are intrinsically loved? The level of intimacy books create is immediate, all-encompassing, and -- if the relationship is good -- remains in your perception of this world for long after you've completed it. Books become friends, lovers, or teachers because it is the author's job to be friend, lover, and teacher. James Baldwin, a man whose mind I'd undress for at a moment's notice, said, "The role of the artist is exactly the same as the role of the lover. If I love you, I have to make you conscious of the things you don’t see.” Which won't always be pleasant but it will always be magnificent. Is there a more fulfilling level of intimacy than that? I love you enough to risk exposing myself (and that's the only fear there is, isn't it, fear of exposing some imagined weakness), whether it be to pain or glory, because the goal of connection is a noble and essential one. We literally create the future through intimacy (procreation); we literally create the future by bridging minds (ideas); without the warmth of your hand in mine there is no point in walking a lovely tree-lined street, a sandy beach, or even the Louvre. Art that does not seek a bond of intimacy does itself a huge disservice.
Feelings I had when I experienced certain sections of books come to me today just as clearly as remembrances of certain kisses. A lover whispered something to me so potent once that I became a god-angel in the span of two seconds. One Hundred Years of Solitude did that to me too. Mil Millington's Love and Other Near Death Experiences did it. Angry Candy by Harlan Ellison regularly touches a shoulder and causes me to wistfully smile. Octavia Butler's Kindred is my sister, and Toni Morrison has made love to my brain more times than I can count.
The intimacy of writing things that will expose the essential humanity of you, the writer, to that of we, the readers, is a gift that neither the Orisha, Olympus, nor the pantheon of Egypt, with all their power, could impart. It is a human thing born of the one need we all have the moment our souls enter and re-enter this world: to communicate. To say, "I am here" in hopes another will respond "I am too." We're here to create "we", otherwise all this beauty surrounding us, all this magnificent melange of sensation, pleasure, thought, and evolution, is an unfinished amusement park. A shell.
If I'm going to walk, write, cook, make love, sing, nap, dream, I'd much rather do it with a sense of you. Solitude is excellent, but the instant I hear you say "Is anybody out there?" I want you to hear a definitive, undeniable, unswerving "Yes."
'Cause that's me hoping your hand slides perfectly into mine.
Life, the universe, and everything creative
Towel Photo credit: EvelynGiggles via Foter.com / CC BY