Yaaaaaaay I guess.
I am not important. An unusual claim for a writer and more so for a blogger, I know, but let’s all accept the statement at face value when I say that my personal experience is not worthy of being added to the thousands of stories collected at wearethe99percent. Instead, I offer a bleak revelation: Educated, driven young people are finding themselves jobless, hungry, homeless, and hopeless at an incredible rate. And winter is coming. In record numbers, America’s next great leaders are faced with the very real possibility of freezing to death. Artists, entrepreneurs, inventors, writers, politicians, poets, homeowners, mothers, fathers.
Somewhere, on the mean streets of some no-name strip mall town with no shelter, the next Martin Luther King Jr. could be gradually wasting away. Sleeping behind the dumpster at Sears, malnourished with no healthcare to combat the complications this creates, her heart will quietly stop one early morning in mid-November. The opening shift manager, who’s been on a pay-freeze since 2006, will find her when he steps out at 9am for a smoke break. Good grades, played by all of society’s rules for success, dead behind a dumpster.
This is, of course, a hyperbolic story written to tug the heart strings of people who couldn’t otherwise see the danger in creating a generation of distrusting, disillusioned debt slaves who were educated to succeed and got nothing for their efforts. We stand to lose the drive, the innovation, the spark and fire of millions of young minds. The boomers can’t carry this country forever, and we can’t afford to break the backs of those next in line.
Freedom’s just another word for nothing left to lose.
The media has taken to calling American young adults like myself The Lost Generation, left in the lurch by the recession and saddled with crippling loans from predatory institutions. High unemployment, high underemployment, no healthcare, no government assistance. Our degrees, vocational or not, have become liabilities. They scare off employers afraid of paying for educated workers and lock us into endless cycles of debt. Our trust in a system we were raised to revere is shaken and shattered. We have the lowest rate of upward social mobility in generations. We are a generation ruled by uncertainty, disillusionment, and despair.
On the other hand, a certain freedom can be found in acknowledging that you’re most likely to fail regardless of your actions. Being financially and socially boned is especially freeing, since we’re taught from childhood that hard work brings lots of money and lots of money brings all you could ever want. What we’re being taught as young adults is that hard work gets you absolutely jack, and having jack to show for your hard work gets you labeled as lazy and stupid. Before now the only people who poured their blood, sweat, and tears into trying to sell their talent only to be called lazy and stupid for it were artists. Ah, and that’s where this is going.
I have been more productive as a writer, three times as productive, since I came to the realization that at this point I will never secure a lucrative career programming computers or doing field studies for advertising firms. I will never sit quietly at a desk compiling data for exactly eight hours and drive home in a car newer than I am to a home that I own. A little soul-crushing considering I was raised to attain these things and see anything less as failure, but oddly freeing at the same time. While I will never have these things, I will also never be limited by the fear of losing them. I am no longer locked into a career that would pervade my life in a field I’ve learned to resent.
I write more because the realization has given me the freedom to say “Screw it. If I’m doomed anyway, I might as well be telling stories when I’m not throwing resumes into the void.” There’s comfort in coming home from a long day of being turned away from even the simplest of jobs and knowing that you can create something. And if by some fluke you keep at it and wind up with something long enough/good enough/pretty enough to try and sell, the worst that could happen is that it won’t be bought. When you’re already doomed and have created something for its own sake, this prospect isn’t so terrifying. You’ve already tried to sell every other talent you have and been shot down, so why fret over it?
If you like me are a part of this supposed lost generation, I implore you to create. Write stories, write your memoir, write songs, draw, paint a landscape, take up a cheap instrument, something. Once you’re creating, put yourself out there. On the market, in the net, wherever.
No one can deny that these are difficult times, but it is not a time we should allow to pass us by. We are the fresh young voices being shut out of American society by hiring freezes, downsizes, and overqualification. Our experience is a unique one that imparts a unique change in perspective. Keep throwing your resumes into the void – I do, at least five times per week – but create when you allow yourself a break from that. Write instead of watching TV, paint instead of playing video games, write a folk punk tune for your $7 harmonica instead of staring out the window wondering what the Hell happened.
I take my inspiration from many places, though few things send stories and passages rolling out of my brain like sound and sight. Today I want to talk a little about images, specifically the work of three artists: Arthur Rackham, Michael Whelan, and John Bauer.
In the United States, Rackham is best known for his illustrations of Richard Wager’s Ring cycle. For those of you not familiar, that’s the one with Ride of the Valkyries in it. For those even less familiar, it’s the song old cartoons commonly played over dogfight scenes. Rackham didn’t do any plates for the particular opera the song is from, but now you know basically what I mean: The pictures to accompany music like that.
Rackham used a method unique to himself to create the blended, muddy colors over his gritty, realistic lines. The level of detail in his work is astounding, especially when you take into account how personalized his style was.
Something about Rackham’s grungy, earthy art holds a great deal of majesty for me. It is fantastic but not garishly colored; it seems so much more real and tangible. As a slight nod to Rackham, the hero of my current project has the same absurdly curly blond hair as Siegfried in the above Wagner plate.
Whelan may not be an old master like Rackham, but his work has affected me all the same. You may recognize his style from scifi and fantasy covers. I know that’s where I first saw anything he did, being fourteen and having no real admitted interest in art.
If Rackham is my subdued but majestic inspiration, Whelan is my extravagant and fantastic inspiration.
Whelan’s greatest strength, to me, is in conveying a sense of place. He illustrates some of the strangest, most gorgeous landscapes in a way that, for the barest moment, transports me.
Around two thirds of my current story takes place in a world that is not our own, and even when I don’t intend to I feel I must be siphoning off some of Whelan’s imagery, pulling out choice snatches of sight from memories of earmarked covers of books I bought for the pretty picture.
To the casual observer, Bauer’s work looks a lot like Rackham’s. His colors are earthy and washy and his lines are fairly detailed. However, Bauer’s work has a softer, loopier feel than Rackham’s gritty illustrations. It’s not as realistic, it’s much simpler. Lots of curly, wavy lines.
Above all, I appreciate Bauer’s depiction of natural things. The shapes strike a good balance between realism and stylized loopiness, and the combination just draws me in.
I know a few writers follow me, so I’m wondering: What images, if any, stir inspiration in you?
As a kid, my reading was almost entirely fantastical. If the setting wasn’t some far-away invented place, it was another time or another planet or some supernaturally-tinted vision of our own world. I didn’t like to read Beverly Cleary and other writers who primarily worked in the mundane world. I remember holing up in my treehouse like a brown recluse spider, reading through The Lord of the Rings and being quietly blown away by Eowyn’s big I’ll Cut You spiel to the Witch King.
But no living man am I! You look upon a woman. Eowyn I am, Eomund’s daughter. You stand between me and my lord and kin. Begone, if you be not deathless! For living or dark undead, I will smite you, if you touch him.
The same feeling, the same nameless Something came over me many times while reading many stories, but I couldn’t identify or articulate it for years and years. It dangled just out of reach in the heat haze. I came to realize as I grew older that this was the feeling of new and unexpected experiences, however vicarious, making their impression on my developing brain. It was the distant tingling of seeing things and people and acts I had never imagined could exist, things that I had no access to in my backward hometown. To have a forceful and charismatic personality was a distant ideal, and I had up to that point seen no broad swath of country that did not closely match the pattern of pine tree-pine tree-WalMart-pine tree-factory farm-pine tree-church-pine tree-pine tree-cemetery.
Reading what I read could take me at any time to a place that wasn’t where I was, and show me people entirely unlike the people I knew. It opened me up to the possibility that amazing experiences and places and people did exist, and that not everyone had to be crazy or boring. It was an incredibly freeing revelation each and every time, even though I wasn’t aware that I was having it.
I am a huge supporter of escapist fiction. For kids, for adults, for whoever. We are all trapped within one circumstance or another that we wish to escape at some point, and often we are given no opportunity to escape it in any sufficiently quick way. We may never fully escape some situations and circumstances. If we allow our minds to drift to somewhere better, to see better people, maybe we can take away more than comfort and a few hours killed. And even if that’s all we get, I still can’t find disagreement with Tolkien on the subject.
Fantasy is escapist, and that is its glory. If a soldier is imprisioned by the enemy, don’t we consider it his duty to escape?. . .If we value the freedom of mind and soul, if we’re partisans of liberty, then it’s our plain duty to escape, and to take as many people with us as we can!
When the first Harry Potter book was released stateside, I was twelve years old. Now, for the sake of having some social context for those of you who were born into a world with a different New York City skyline than I was, Harry Potter caused some ugliness in several parts of America back in the day. I grew up in the ass-end of Mississippi and Harry goddamn Potter was some kind of bombshell to the isolated Southern Baptist world in which I lived. Reading for pleasure, especially reading fantastic fiction for pleasure, wasn’t exactly in vogue among young people. I know book people like to puff up how much more kids read during their time in the halls of their middle school, but for me being an avid reader was a social wasteland. You just didn’t do it, partly due to isolation from sources of new material and partly due to the artificial isolation from the outside world that comes with building a community on religious fundamentalism. Phillip K. Dick, J.R.R. Tolkien, Ursula Le Guin, Ray Bradbury, they all had no foothold in that world outside the black trunk in my treehouse. Their pop culture saturation wasn’t great enough in the early 90s to seep through the many layers of parental screening and ingrained fear of change that lay heavy over the rural communities of southwestern Mississippi.
Harry Potter, though, was different. It was nowhere, and then seemingly everywhere. Immediately. All over the bookstores and libraries stationed, in any direction, upwards of eighteen miles away. Displayed proudly at all three Wal-Marts within an hour’s drive. All over the news our parents watched every night. Most importantly, it was discussed with great excitement in every middle school classroom full of kids bused in from towns with bookstores and libraries and more than one church. The simple saturation of it, the incredible presence it had, helped it to infiltrate the community. It had reached the same level of saturation as the harmless Hansen kids, something possibly deviant but so widely spread and accepted that policing it was difficult for any parent who didn’t straight up keep their kids chained to a lawnmower in the shed.
Once the book broke through the surface of my community, every kid I knew was in love with it, and dear God did adults hate it. My parents didn’t exactly care, but the parents of my friends readily fell into the furor surrounding the book’s supposed ability to summon Yog Sosoth. Or something.
I, much to my own surprise, didn’t care for the book. I didn’t dislike it or think it was bad, it just didn’t speak to me in the same way it did to every other kid. To this day, I can’t adequately explain why I could read the pages and recognize that the prose was good and the story was simple but effective and still not care.
As a result, I totally missed growing up alongside Harry and the gang, something many of my age peers look back on with a nerdy fondness. Now, at the beginning of Banned Books Week, I find myself recalling the kid/adult schism that the books created in my hometown as I sat in total indifference to them.
I guess what I’m trying to say here is that on Monday a grown-ass man will walk out of my local library with a copy of the first book and walk briskly home to try to discover what he missed when he was twelve.
When I was still in grade school I spent about as much time reading and breaking down works of fiction as I did forcing myself to learn algebra or collecting bugs for my natural science lessons, and I think that did me a lot of good. We were encouraged to examine characters’ motives and what I would later learn was called subtext, and our interpretations were rarely called wrong. It was a strangely egalitarian, individualistic way of teaching literature and I attribute my continued love of reading in part to it.
It wasn’t until I started middle school that I discovered that very few people in Southern Mississippi are taught literature in this way, or that early. Many new friends I made had never read Moby Dick, or The Count of Monte Cristo, or any of the other old people books I’d grown up reading and picking apart every summer. More surprisingly, what they did read in class was not so much up for discussion as it was pre-packaged with the interpretations from the instructor’s copy of the textbook. It seemed like a very boring way to learn about a book. Or anything, really.
Years later, I find myself wondering if our capacity for interpretation and imagination is slowly being smothered out of us. There is a much greater emphasis now on being ‘right’ for the sake of filling in the proper bubbles on standardized tests, as well as an astounding amount of time devoted to the preparations for these tests. There is little room for interpretation or discussion and, increasingly, little room for reading at all.
Of course, in young adults’ spare time, on the internet, imagination and interpretation are alive and well. I discovered this not long after I discovered that literary interpretation did not happen in regular schools. While trying, trying, trying to force my thirteen year old self to enjoy Harry Potter. Perhaps, thought I, the answer could be found through online discussion. Perhaps I would enjoy the book better if I could find a list of why so many other kids liked it.
My God, the things I discovered. The fixation, and the obsession, and above all the lengthy and varied discussions all over what at that time amounted to two children’s books, one of which hadn’t even been released in the U.S. yet. Friends I had known now for a couple of years, who had grown up either ignoring or being told to ignore the possibility of interpretation, discussed the books just as excitedly. And their interpretations were just as varied, just as individual.
In spite of my efforts, I never got into Harry Potter as a kid. Even though I could recognize that they were good books, for whatever reason they didn’t speak to me in the same way they spoke to seemingly every other kid I knew. However, even though I’ve yet to learn to love the books, I am forever grateful to Joanne Rowling for creating them and sending them out into the world to awaken the imaginations of minds the school system has too little time and too little money to do much with.