May 6, 2009

The Elephant in the Room and the 800 lb. Gorilla Get into a Fight

A little bit about where some of my misanthropy comes from. And some of my urgency. I’ve had one of the most fucked up years on record. Not relative to people who live in a warzone, but relative to my life. Last winter I found out that my health had deteriorated considerably. It’s something I’d known about since my early twenties, but my body was failing to a deeper degree. I have kidney disease. It’s something I’ve rarely written about here because it’s sometimes not healthy to obsess about it. But it’s a major part of my life. My kidneys are at 20% capacity, which means I'm low enough to be on the waiting list for a transplant.

Sometimes I feel like crap, sometimes I feel normal – though I have a feeling my version of normal is a healthy person’s version of toxic. Think about how you feel after eating junk food, drinking too much, and not sleeping: like that. Cold on the inside, bad. So I’m on medication everyday. And I’m on a stupidly difficult diet. It’s not just that I can’t eat a lot of protein or cholesterol or salt, I also can’t eat potassium, which is in a lot of healthy food: spinach, tomatoes, chocolate, bananas, potatoes. Almost everything has potassium in it and I can only eat so much a day. Hear that Brian Spaeth? Baked potatoes are my enemy. Potassium Chloride is what they give people on death row to stop their heart.

Hearing about my health was just a total blow to my worldview. I’d spent years upon years struggling as a writer, struggling through a difficult marriage, living by the faith that at some point I'd see some reward and some leisure, only to find that my body was falling apart. It felt like a deeply unfair epilogue.

This sense of my body falling apart has been core to my writing. As my body deteriorates, so too is the world. I didn’t write an apocalyptic novel by accident. Everything around me and in me seemed to be fading. I didn’t make the lead character sick, though he is autobiographical to some extent – me in 20 years time, but more me right now. But I didn’t want to make him sick because it would make him less universal. But anyone who reads the book should know where I’m coming from. I think about life and death a lot. Figuring out what might happen after you die – a key component of The American Book of the Dead – hits me somewhere deep.

I did make the character in the novel struggling in a marriage, however. Which is what happened. My wife and I separated last June. I take care of my daughter every other week. I’ve been going to incredibly depressing “transplant classes” surrounded by people who are 70 and over. Learning how to be a father and mother both, living on my own again, without much of a support network as I face this extraordinarily difficult time.

Meanwhile, my writing career is stagnant. At a point last year, around the time of diagnosis, I was thinking about never writing again. I’d given it my shot – nothing was going to happen. I thought something had died in me. Thankfully it hadn’t – and a positive result of the separation is that I worked on and finished my novel. Starting the Self-Publishing Review in December was in a way to will myself back into the publishing game – to care about industry stuff again, which I once followed.

But my anger about the state of publishing, and the vitriol I display against agents, is because I feel an incredible sense of urgency more than I even did in the past about not wasting the rest of my days writing for other people and being able to have more freedom to write for myself. And I think I’ve got a unique perspective – writer, songwriter, chronically ill. At least when writing about life and death and sickness, I’ve got some credibility. It’s why I've written songs like this one to my daughter with the lyrics:

When you hear this song remember
All that I wanted to say
Like your soul, it is infinite
And I won’t ever go away
I will never go away

I have to live my life feeling like maybe my daughter won’t be able to watch me watch her grow up. No, my life’s not over, and people with kidney disease lead very productive lives. But I feel sicker one day and think oh, shit, now it begins. I feel a pain in my arm and wonder if my heart’s going to fail. I’m like a hypochondriac who’s actually sick.

I’m convinced that because I’m more physically toxic, I tend to get more emotionally toxic as well. I get very misanthropic about the state of things – but strangely enough this misanthropy is justified by how people treat each other. But greater than that, I see people’s devaluing of writing, as targeted in that agent post, as part of the overall fabric of devaluing life, devaluing the earth, devaluing intelligence, and so on. Humans are brutal. And perhaps because my health is poor it may give me a skewed sense of the health of everything else. Or perhaps I'm right.

So I’ve been meaning to write this post for a while. It gives a perspective on where I’m coming from. And when The American Book’s released, I can’t point to it and let people know what my life was like while I was writing the book.


Brent Robison said...

I felt sad after reading your post and had to wait a day before commenting. I appreciate the honesty you display; it's so against the grain of what is considered "marketing" in this smiley-face culture. But it makes me so much more interested in your work because I see you as a real human being suffering like I do (only moreso). Your truth-telling suggests that your fiction is also "true," by which I mean, not autobiography, but that it is not manipulative lies told for no other purpose than attracting a spotlight, courting wealth and fame, as so much fiction is today. I wish you the best: an upturn in your health, a lift for your spirit. Thanks for your post.

--Brent Robison

Henry said...

Thanks a lot. Really appreciate it. Creeps me out to some degree to be this naked, but also totally cathartic. I felt lighter having written it. The blog as therapy. And I see a direct relation with writers who are willing to be revealing on their blogs and writers who are willing to dig deep in their fiction. So it’s generally good to not hide anything.

Anonymous said...

Hey Henry- I stumbled on this site because i was watching a documentary on Emmett Till, and in the previews, there was a trailer for this movie that kinda sounded like the plot for oscar caliber gun (it's called "I love your work"), so it made me think of you and wonder if you (hope you) got acknowledged/compensated; anyway, I'm sorry all this stuff has been happening, and am sorry I haven't been around to lend a hand-- email me/let me know if you feel like hanging out or need anything. Mandy

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