Writing nonfiction: “What’s Left?” February 2021

Rule #1: If an idea cannot be expressed in language that a reasonably attentive seventh-grader can understand, someone’s jiving someone else.
Neil Postman, Charles Weingartner, The Soft Revolution, 1971

I wrote an essay in the early 1970s called “Polarity Thinking vs Integrative Thinking.” It was a highfalutin pseudo-philosophical screed that proposed going beyond the politics of Left and Right from a libertarian perspective, following along the lines of Left and Right: A Journal of Libertarian Thought run by Karl Hess and Murray Rothbard from 1965 to 1968. I’m a writer who was into self-publishing what eventually became known as fanzines—zines for short—a subculture of small format hand-made xeroxed or printed magazines published in limited quantities about whatever the creators found interesting. I think this essay first appeared in something I created called ELF: A Journal of Creative, Practical Anarchy. I even ran a crossover libertarian study group in Santa Cruz for a time with a couple of anarchist capitalists and me and a fellow left anarchist. Fortunately, the “integrative thinking” of my libertarian if clueless “third positionism” was blissfully short-lived. I realized that having anything to do with rightwing anarchists was bullshit as I reaffirmed my commitment to revolutionary leftwing anarchism.

But that essay had a life of its own and it was eventually reprinted by a right libertarian zine called Against The Wall. The publisher of Against The Wall sent me a copy of his zine with my writing prominently displayed, accompanied with a letter effusively praising it as brilliant and groundbreaking. I wrote him back disparaging all rightwing libertarians as crypto-fascists. What I didn’t tell him was that I could barely understand what I had written because it was so egregiously convoluted. The essay was written at a deliberately high and abstract level, and I was embarrassed because I was also being too clever by half. I was talking for the sake of hearing myself talk and reveling at being oh so smart. If you google the essay’s title, it comes up under my name as part of the Libertarian Microfiche/Peace Plans project.

My zine’s name—ELF—was short for Education Liberation Front because I was into pro-Summerhill/Skool Abolition/student liberation politics at the time. Postman and Weingartner, from which I cribbed Rule #1, were definitely on the liberal/progressive/social democratic end of a politics that was characterized by Jerry Farber’s collection of essays entitled The Student as Nigger. The sentiment for simplicity behind Rule #1 accorded well with other philosophical principles for intelligibility—like Occam’s Razor (“entities should not be multiplied without necessity”)—that I admired as a writer, but which back then I rarely practiced. About the same time, I took to carrying around the slim volume The Elements of Style by William Strunk, Jr. and E.B. White, Rule #17 of which famously declared “avoid needless words.” Known as “the little book,” Strunk and White’s manual for writers is a paean to brevity, but there is a difference between brevity and intelligibility. Making an idea simple often requires using more words to make the meaning clear, whereas brevity can sometimes make a notion’s significance more obscure.

I must admit I’ve never been an adherent to the cult of brevity. Years ago, I settled on a maximum length of 1,500 words for my columns, an arbitrary upper limit I struggle with even though I no longer write for Maximum Rocknroll. But I now always strive for legibility and simplicity in my political writing. Before I dig into how I write my post-MRR columns, let’s spend more time considering the importance of clarity. Having hung around the Left all my adult life, I’m appalled by the confounding complexity and deliberate obscurantism often practiced in these circles. I remember debating a Frankfurt School acolyte in the late 1980s. When I brought up Rule #1 he defended the need for his highly abstruse Hegelian argumentation. At the time I equated simplicity with an anarchistic desire for unmediated relationships in general, but he was having none of that. “Unmediated relationships are fascist,” he declared. Which, in turn, reminded me of the 1970 film The Revolutionary in which Jon Voight played a hapless youngster named “A.”

A college student under the tutelage of a liberal professor (Lionel Murton), “A” is disillusioned when the students are easily arrested during a slapstick campus protest. He then joins a Marxist cell of factory workers lead by union leader Despard (Robert Duvall) for endless meetings and leafletting in anticipation of militant labor picketing and strikes. “A” is committed, but he doesn’t seem to accomplish much, and he certainly isn’t having much fun. Then he meets Leonard (Seymour Cassel), a wild quasi-Yippie revolutionist his own age who looks like Freewheelin’ Frank of the Fabulous Furry Freak Brothers. Together, they liberate a pawn shop and give away its merchandise before Leonard sets “A” up with a bomb to carry out on old-school anarchist attentat to assassinate some class enemy. When Leonard first hears of “A”s insipid experiences and resounding disappointment with the Marxist workers cadre he asks: “What? You don’t speak dialectics?” Then Leonard quacks like Donald Duck, and they both laugh.

The movie was an overly simplistic illustration of the differences between political action and direct action, and between Marxism and anarchism. Back then I was transitioning from the latter to the former, while today I maintain a commitment in my writing to the simplicity and direct expression of anarchism while I hope to engage meaningfully in the subtleties of Marxism. I have a default format for my columns, which often entails starting with some personal anecdote or recollection before delving into heavy-duty political subjects. This present column has a little more of the personal and a little less of the political, but the formula remains tried-and-true. I rely on a clear premise and conclusion, evidence, research, and logical argumentation using cause and effect and creative comparisons.

The Elements of Style is intended to provide classic precepts for good writing applicable to both nonfiction and fiction work. While rules such as #17’s insistence on brevity are applicable to both forms of writing, in my experience the use and feel of injunctions like “avoid needless words” differ markedly between nonfiction and fiction writing. There are also elements in fiction like plot, character development and dialogue that have no direct comparison with elements in nonfiction. I do both kinds of writing, and I find fiction writing far more difficult than nonfiction writing. Some readers may contend that my nonfiction work is every bit a fiction, and not because my personal remembrances border on memoir which is borderline between the two.

I also try to maintain a balance between current events and historical analysis and the related dichotomy between being au courant and timeless. The distinction here is not merely the difference between the individual and the collective, between what is individually compelling versus what is socially significant. I participated in several countercultural movements—from 60s rocknroll to 70s punk—that turned out to change the culture, society and arguably the world. Yet who hears much about raga rock these days. It’s a style of music I was briefly fascinated with after the Byrds did their March 28, 1966, “raga rock” press conference during which Roger McGuinn played a sitar to debut the release of their song “Eight Miles High.” He subsequently tuned his Rickenbacker 12-string guitar to sound like one. Nothing ever really dies musically—or for that matter counterculturally or politically—and raga rock has recently experienced a revival of sorts. But there’s a reason why it’s called someone’s personal “taste” in music.

I recently wrote a column about the antagonisms between modern historical time versus traditional and rightwing cyclical time. Arguably, the discussion of what is currently newsworthy and historically important is this column’s bread-and-butter. In that previous piece I make a distinction between the linear chronicling of unique events and facts (histoire événementielle) and the longue durée of gradually developing social, economic and cultural patterns and structures which I consider history proper. What isn’t obvious is how I sift one from the other or, alternately, how I weave one into the other. Both are very much behind-the-scenes processes that rely on my subjective tastes and my objective judgments, with the distinction between subjective and objective sometimes being hard to draw.

In the days when Maximum Rocknroll had columns, there was a kind of end notes “arms race,” when several columnists developed them as standalone vignettes. A couple of prominent MRR columnists even claimed to have invented the magazine’s end notes feature. End notes were like a literary selfie, a capsule summary of who the columnist was, what they were into and what they’ve accomplished. I frequently boiled mine down to a rote few lines advertising my book and my interests which I labeled Personal Propaganda. In this post-MRR reality, I try to end each column with a select bibliography, a reading list focused on the column’s subject.

That’s “Lefty” Hooligan 101.

SOURCES:
Personal recollections
The Soft Revolution: A Student Handbook for Turning Schools Around by Neil Postman and Charles Weingartner
The Elements of Style by William Strunk, Jr. and E.B. White

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Writing and self-isolating in a time of plague: “What’s Left?” May 2020 (MRR #444)

The terrifying thing about an outbreak that requires people not to leave their homes for 90 days is it means the only ones to survive will be freelance writers.
—Sam Adams, senior editor, Slate Magazine

I dropped out of graduate school at UCSD in 1979 after a traumatic breakup with a lover. I spent the next two plus years drunk twenty-four/seven, even spending nine months homeless living in and around the UCSD campus. Friends helped me reconstruct my life, find a place to live and get a job. And from that point on until my retirement I was gainfully employed.

Almost.

I hated working for someone else. Even my best jobs never went past six years, and on average they lasted only two. I always made sure to stay employed long enough to qualify for unemployment benefits and then to get terminated in such a way as to collect said benefits. That was six months of paid writing time as I saw it, and occasionally during economic downturns I managed to double that. I’m a writer, have been since I was twelve, and I did much of my writing after hours, after either school or work. Being on unemployment was like being on a paid writer’s holiday.

It’s in the nature of a writer to self-isolate. I tended to spend days blending into weeks sitting at home alone writing while on unemployment living in San Diego and the Bay Area. Computers and word processing software have been a boon to writing. I’ve always owned a Mac, starting with a modified Mac Plus in 1985. After the laptop was invented I would of course take the one I owned to write in cafes and coffee shops. I still do. But even now I prefer writing in libraries because of the peace and quiet. Staying holed up in my residence writing—self-quarantining if you will—has always been second nature to me.

Of course that meant also drinking alone while writing when I drank alcohol. Being a day drunk went with the territory, so much so that when I retired I had to make rules for myself limiting my drinking to after five in the afternoon. The alcoholic writer is a common trope. Ernest Hemingway, James Joyce, F. Scott Fitzgerald, Charles Bukowski, William Faulkner, Jack Kerouac, Edgar Allen Poe, Dylan Thomas, Tennessee Williams, John Cheever, Raymond Chandler, Hunter S. Thompson; the list of alcoholic writers I admire is long. “Taking the cure” has often meant suffering from writer’s block and other writing problems as a consequence. Fortunately, I never had that problem when I stopped drinking.

Writing in a time of plague is a tricky business however. It’s becoming common to compare COVID-19 not just to various flu-like diseases but also to the AIDS/HIV pandemic. “There’s no sense in comparing the two viruses — the novel coronavirus and HIV. They are not alike, not in speed or reach or genome.” (Ryan Kost, “They survived one plague. Now HIV/AIDS survivors face down the coronavirus,” SF Chronicle) Whereas COVID-19 is transmitted through airborne and physical human contact and has a 1-3% mortality rate, for instance, AIDS is sexually transmitted and had an 11% mortality rate at its height. About the only thing they have in common is the fear they’ve generated. As a member of the queer-friendly community back in 1980, I remember the whispered anxiety that a new “gay cancer” was making the rounds. Gay bashing has always been a reality for the LGBTQI+ community, exacerbated by the public’s fear of AIDS. The community response has ranged from staid volunteer self-defense organizations like the Castro Community on Patrol to the far more militant Bash Back! movement. Now people are freaking out if someone even coughs or sneezes nearby. Asian/Chinese bashing caused by COVID-19 fears is coming to rival the gay-bashing related to fear of AIDS. US combat veterans have started patrolling San Francisco’s Chinatown in response. I bear the vaccine mark of the polio virus from the 1950s fear of poliomyelitis. As with polio, good solid science halted the spread of HIV and, with luck, it will do so against COVID-19.

Another thing these disparate diseases have in common is the loneliness and isolation engendered by catching the illness. Being confined or quarantined as a consequence of having a potentially life-threatening disease can be almost as deadly as the illness itself. So can the fear of being infected. I and everyone I know are sheltering-in-place due to COVID-19 and after a month-plus cabin fever has already set in. Gay men have told me about going through all this before, only far worse. The social isolation, the fear of losing one’s friends and employment, being condemned and ostracized, the fear of death. Gregory Fowler has described this poignantly: “I had straight and sadly some gay friends who would not eat out in restaurants if a gay person worked there or wouldn’t invite their gay brother over for Sunday dinner. At its worse, there were weeks when we would hear of the death of 2, 3, 4… friends and acquaintances, all the time living in fear of our own death. This didn’t go on for a few weeks or a few months, but for year after year after year, it became embedded into our daily existence and our constant fight for survival, all the while watching our friends die as the government stood by and did nothing!”

The AIDS and COVID-19 crises are not comparable in so many ways. Coronavirus sheltering-in-place is inconvenient, disruptive and sometimes risky, but it’s not stigmatizing. The response to both require comparable strategies, namely mutual aid and revolution. I’m running out of space and revolution is a fraught term, so I’ll discuss mutual aid now and defer revolution for a future column.

I’ve known members of the Radical Faeries, a group of gay men “which blends counter-cultural values, queer consciousness and spirituality.” (Rory Carroll, “Hold the applause for Facebook’s rainbow-colored profiles, activists say,” The Guardian) Founded by former Communist Party member Harry Hay, the Radical Faeries grew into a loose international network that owned rural land and urban buildings designated sanctuaries for communal living, hosted occasional tribal gatherings, and took care of their own. That meant providing companionship, nursing and hospice for its members who had contracted AIDS. When Harry Hay died in 2002, the Radical Faeries took care of his partner, John Burnside, until he too died in 2008. I did volunteer work at Pets Are Wonderful Support (PAWS) for several years. PAWS started as a free food and medicine delivery service for people with AIDS confined to their homes because “no one should have to make the difficult choice of caring for themselves or caring for their beloved pets.” PAWS has since expanded their free comprehensive support services “to pets of seniors and individuals living with disability or illness,” providing a pet food bank, free and subsidized veterinary services with partnering veterinarians, and pet care services like dog walking and in-home cat sitting. I drove around San Francisco delivering supplies before I eventually did shifts at the PAWS pet food bank.

Well before Peter Kropotkin wrote: “[p]racticing mutual aid is the surest means for giving each other and to all the greatest safety, the best guarantee of existence and progress, bodily, intellectual and moral” in his book Mutual Aid, the practice of human sociability and solidarity have been key to our survival. Long a feature of immigrant communities in the US, mutual aid societies reflect the “sentiment that members of a community that might be overlooked by government efforts may be more successfully reached by people in their circles. Some leftist activists also see mutual aid as part of the work of building the bonds needed for mass movements and a more cooperative democratic society.” (Abigail Savitch-Lew, “Mutual Aid Movement Playing Huge Role in COVID-19 Crisis.” CityLimits) But whether viewed as an immediate, ad hoc solution to problems better left to government, as a way to shame the government into doing its jobs or as the tip of the anarchist spear critiquing the State as an unnecessary, harmful and violent institution, mutual aid was a feature of both the AIDS crisis and today’s COVID-19 pandemic. It’s Going Down, a website “for anarchist, anti-fascist, autonomous anti-capitalist and anti-colonial movements,” features a separate “COVID-19 Mutual Aid” page with hundreds of listing in almost every state in the country.

Shopping and grocery delivery, supply and clothing runs, pharmacy prescription pickups, food preparation, free money—the list of activities and resources covered by mutual aid programs and groups can be long. But providing mutual aid is no substitute for the radical social change required to make such piecemeal efforts obsolete by transforming the whole of society into one based in part on mutual aid. I think the postmodern “resistance of everyday life” is wholly inadequate to the task, but the concept of revolution has fallen into disfavor. So we’ll unpack revolution next time.

SOURCES:
Personal recollections
Mutual Aid: A Factor of Evolution by Peter Kropotkin
Anarchy in Action by Colin Ward
From Mutual Aid to the Welfare State: Fraternal Societies and Social Services, 1890-1967 by David T. Beito
The Fire in Moonlight: Stories from the Radical Faeries 1971-2010 ed. By Thompson, Young, Neely
Radically Gay: Gay Liberation in the Words of Its Founder by Harry Hay
The Trouble with Harry Hay: Founder of the Modern Gay Movement by Stuart Timmons

Themes: “What’s Left?” May 2014, MRR #372

I don’t know why humans like stories that involve death and misfortune; these are the stories that we’re drawn to again and again. […] In terms of the episode itself, for the writers, we had dug in from the beginning in terms of going for maximum impact, giving the characters a real sense of victory and triumph but also coupling it to an inevitable sense that triumph never comes without loss.

Jonathan Nolan, executive producer
“Person of Interest,” Hollywood Reporter interview (11-20-13)

Literary types, and I count myself among them, try to ascertain how many basic plots can be found in literature. There are those few who contend that life has no plot, and therefore literature shouldn’t either. But plotless novels are generally not worth the effort to slog through. Try reading a Kathy Acker novel for kicks sometime. Then there are the monotheists, who argue that there is only one real plot: conflict. Life, and story, are based on conflict. Or more specifically, plot must be structured around one central conflict. There are those who believe that there are only three basic plots: man vs the environment, man vs man, or man vs self. Another triad would divide basic plots into happy endings, unhappy endings, or literary plots in which things are complex and a tad fated whether the ending is happy or unhappy. Matters quickly proliferate from there; 7 plots, 20 plots, 36 plots, etc.

I bring this up because I’ve been writing this more or less monthly column for over twenty years now. I’m bound to repeat myself, mostly here and there, but occasionally in whole. I have my themes, my pet subjects or my axes to grind. I do know that I’ve changed over the past two decades. When I started writing for MRR, I was a newly-minted left communist, having just transitioned from anarchism. I believed that revolution, no matter how unlikely, would eventually succeed; that the working class, no matter how beleaguered, would eventually triumph; and that communism, no matter how fanciful, would eventually come into being. Now, I’m convinced that it’s all fucked and that we’re all doomed. I’m an ex-anarchist, ex-communist, ex-everything who still wishes things might be different but who knows things will only get worse.

When I started writing my columns, I tried changing things up at first; switching from expository essays to three dot news and commentary, rants, satire, reviews of my favorite newspapers and magazines, micro fiction, multi-part in-depth research replete with footnotes, extended discussions of this or that personality, book, film or event, etc. Now, I’m happy to stick to the short essay format, with the occasional foray into other forms. And I’m content to restate and recapitulate, in whole or in part, what I’ve said before. I’m not the most original writer, nor the cleverest. I continue to critique common enemies—state and capital in all their iterations—as well as friends—those to the left of the Left. But without the certainties of my younger years, indeed with a profound despondency over our present and future, my analysis has been fragmented, my scorn has been blunted, and my anger has been rendered aimless.

Without the rubric provided by the early “Lefty” Hooligan, the potential to see the uniqueness in everything is possible. In lieu of my bygone pissed-off politics that had me seeing red—so to speak—most of the time, I now try to cultivate a less judgmental mindfulness. A Theravadan Buddhist forest monk, Achaan Chah Subato, commented: “One day some people came to the master and asked ‘How can you be happy in a world of such impermanence, where you can­not protect your loved ones from harm, ill­ness and death?’ The mas­ter held up a glass and said ‘Some­one gave me this glass, and I really like this glass. It holds my water admirably and it glistens in the sun­light. I touch it and it rings! One day the wind may blow it off the shelf, or my elbow may knock it from the table. I know this glass is already bro­ken, so I enjoy it incredibly.’” Yet, far from realizing that every experience is singular and every moment precious, the loss of a unifying context often makes me deplore everything as shit. Without meaning. Not worth the effort. I no longer subscribe to my old ultraleftism, which allows me to more easily determine what’s bullshit from what’s not. I’m far from being an iconoclast however, having been troubled at times with a forlorn isolation.

Still, I’m drawn to the tragedies, the disasters, the train wrecks. The psychology of why we can’t look away, indeed, why we want to look, is well documented. I was a fan of “Slow Motion Apocalypse” by Grotus, mostly the music but also the album title. It doesn’t take a radical to realize that we live in a slow motion apocalypse when the planet is being gradually gutted, humanity is being marched (or perhaps sauntered) to the edge of a cliff, and each of us faces a rather grim future. Everyone knows by now that lemmings jumping to their deaths is a myth, perpetuated by Disney whose film crew engineered the whole spectacle. What’s harder to swallow is that so-called revolutionaries seem hell-bent on self-destruction and suicide. Different cliff, same leap, and in our own language, “self-organized.” No triumph despite loss, no heroic self sacrifice that wins out in the end, no nothing.

Nothing is as nothing does.

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