Archives for posts with tag: colson whitehead

la-columbe

Colson Whitehead defines the artist as “a monster who has stopped pretending”. But what does it mean to “stop pretending”? How do you just accept your monstrosity and go through the world seven feet tall with green skin and bolts jutting out of the sides of your neck? The first thing that I fear is violating decorum by confessing things that are unseemly. But I have decided, or understood, that remaining silent about those things is not being evasive, it is simply rejecting cliche. We all have our cacodemons— I don’t need to elaborate my version of them. You know them as well as I do.

The first time I felt that I had something to hide that wasn’t the same thing everyone else was hiding was reading Laurence Perrine’s purple textbook, What is Literature? I was fifteen, and that book was assigned in my sophomore English class. It was an anthology with commentary; I don’t remember the commentary, but I started reading the poems one night in my room, and I found something I hadn’t before: calm. I immediately felt that I had to conceal what I was doing.

One night in college a friend found me in the vast library at Stanford. We were on one of several underground, dark floors; there was no one else around. I greeted him quietly, and I remember him gesturing at the gray, full bookshelves and saying wildly, “I have so many friends in here!”

I have friends you can’t see, but I am not pretending I don’t anymore. Not that you can tell that when I am standing in front of you in line at the Daily Grind; you can’t see past my bony, four-foot long arms sticking way out of the tattered ends of my blazer, and you avoid eye contact as we negotiate the little milk and sugar station next to the cashier. But you relax a bit when you see me giggling to myself over my copy of The Rachel Papers, and you watch me get down on my hands and knees so that Dolly, the owner’s pit bull, can lick my face.

dirtyfranks

Anders was in town for a few days, for work. We met at Dirty Frank’s, about ten blocks away from my apartment. Dirty Frank’s had a mural outside with lots of Franks on it: Aretha Franklin, Frankenstein, Frank Zappa, FDR, a frankfurter. Inside were many of the teachers I knew from the strike, some of their union organizers, and local grad students. The room was a little rectangle with banquettes against the walls and the bar in the middle, accessible on all four sides.

“So, it’s been six months. What am I going to do?” I asked him.

“Well, let’s think,” he said. The barista, who had never spoken to me before, had already asked us twice if there was anything else we needed. I could see her over Anders’ shoulder; it looked like she was concentrating her brainwaves to nudge a glass off the edge of our table.

“You have lots of talents,” he said. “You are really good with a pool cue, for example. You know how to size up a shot. You look like a GQ model when you are waiting for your turn, leaning on your cue. I mean, you’re not very good at pool, but you do have textbook form. And élan.”

“So, fashion model. Or hip-hop mogul.”

“Right. So get some new clothes. Look the part.”

“That’s helpful. I am unemployed, so your advice is to spend money, go shopping.”

Anders laughed, and then thought for a minute.

“Okay. You know the writer Colson Whitehead,” he said. “He has a great personal history in The New Yorker. It’s pretty lighthearted, but he has this amazing line: ‘An artist is a monster who has stopped pretending.’ He puts that line in this funny piece about watching horror movies with his family as a kid. It stuck out.”

I nodded, warding off interruption.

“Look, Francesco,” he said. “You’re a monster. We all are. That’s one of the things that is great about the Colson Whitehead line— you know you’re a monster. That’s the starting point. And the only way to find out if you are an artist— in the broadest sense, the sense of owning your life and putting it out there— is if you stop pretending. So stop. Be the monster you are. At least that way you can relax. Pretending takes a lot of energy.

“So it’s either P Diddy or Frankenstein.”

“What are you scared of?” he said, just a bit annoyed. “Stop dissembling. Take off the mask, and show us the monster. Frankly” —said with sing-song irony— “your version of monstrosity is going to be less of a car wreck than you think. There will be some rubber-necking, sure. But it’s not going to be a day-before-Thanksgiving-on-the-turnpike level pile-up. Believe me— I know the kind of shit that is going to come out. I know you.”