My series 8 Tautologies is the first piece of writing I produced as an amateur. At least, it was with this series that I consciously wrote like one. By amateur, I mean a writer who has given up the fantasy of professionalism—that is, making a living by the pen. It is true that I never really thought I would make a living as a writer, but it was not until I wrote 8 Tautologies that I began to compose as someone who had done away with ideas commonly associated with professional authorship. No longer would I feel the need to create a literary product that publishers believed thousands of people would pay money to consume.
Not long ago in the United States, writers had a justifiable position in wanting to become professionals. A professional writer — someone paid to produce a certain kind of literary work for a large audience (with regularity) — could expect not only that the work would sell, but also that the work would be read. But if your books did not find their way into publication, there was little chance that those books would be read. Therefore, a writer could defend the choice to become a professional simply by citing a desire to be read.
Many American notions of the professional writer date to the mid-20th Century, that short time when there was a large middlebrow readership that supported numerous careers for “serious” writers. This, of course, is no longer the case, and has rarely been the case. Outside of this anomalous golden age, relatively few Anglophone writers have ever made a direct living from literary production, and today, in most other languages, no writers do so, unless they enjoy private or state patronage.
But these days, in the so-called digital age, with its proliferation of reputable platforms for writers, visibility need not hinge on the market. Today you can reach readers — sometimes many — without having to think about money or the salability of your work. Instead, you can simply write what you please. When you are not doing that you can do something more lucrative to support yourself — something, needless to say, not too harmful to yourself or the world. Though there are few jobs that meet these criteria, they tend to pay better and more reliably than writing contests.
It is with this new understanding of myself — an amateur — that I set out to write “8 Tautologies.” It was a thrilling moment, being perfectly autonomous (so I felt): now I was free to write what I desired. So I cast aside bulky and lofty forms in favor of these inconsequential tales. After all, there had been precedents. Thomas Bernhard has shown that short-form prose could be serialized to great effect. In the same way, Eliot Weinberger has shown how explosive and interesting dissimilar paragraphs can be when arranged in stacks—he has done this so well in his avowedly non-art essays.
And yet I knew I was a complete disgrace and disreputable: I would arouse nothing but disgust at a posh dinner party of well-heeled guests. How to explain to a group of notable people, well into their careers, that I aimed to be nothing except an amateur ‘graphomaniac,’ rather than an esteemed author? Or: How to explain to such a crowd that good writing and financial success were not in the least compatible?
I decided it didn’t matter!
Because it felt so liberating to be autonomous, free from the worry of writing a book that everyone would talk about!
So I threw out my writing desk and took to the streets.
No longer would I force myself to write five hours a day, regardless of whether I had anything that had to be said!
No longer would I fashion literary commodities for a mass readership!
No longer would my writing be used in this way.
I ran around my city looking for air to breathe and people to follow and to observe!
I imagined that I was an explorer in an alien jungle.
I watched how bored everyone was and how lonely and desperate and un-stimulated.
I even watched people at museums pretending to observe art — most uncomfortably.
I started to see more clearly!
I finally realized that everyone at the MoMA hated art, and that woman who kept vomiting in front of the Rothko was actually not part of the work but a regular visitor who couldn’t take it anymore — all that supposed spirituality in a place with an expensive cafeteria and gift shop!
I wrote only about what I smelled and saw, yet I was not even aware that I was doing so.
Imagine! This amateur in the street scribbling in his notepad as he watches you toil in this late capitalist hyper-saturated desert of emotional alienation! Try to imagine the thrill of being simultaneously watched and refracted through an excited, young, and totally unambitious mind! No less, the mind of a writer with few credits to his name!
But in the end I wrote this series, and not only is it visible, I was asked how I did it.
Michael G. Donkin lives and writes in Brooklyn, New York and attends CUNY Hunter. His fiction recently appeared in Chicago Review.