So first, I have to do this:
It’s been awhile.
(Now I have to do this:)
So here’s what happened.
First off, I got rejected again. This time by a small publisher, in the same city where I live. The publisher does mostly nautical fiction, action/adventure on the high seas, but they were looking to get into more fantasy stuff, as well. One of my finished books is a serial adventure about a 17th-century Irish pirate who travels unintentionally through time, with his ship and crew, to 2011. I could not think of a more perfect opportunity for them to expand into fantasy while still keeping their nautical theme and also supporting local writers; and I felt like this was the best opportunity I’ve had to get published, because it was a small press and because everything fit so well. I had visions of my book being picked up by a major house, like Stephen King’s Carrie; I had more reasonable visions of going to local book stores and fairs and shilling for my book, because that’s where I found this place, at a booth at the Tucson Festival of Books. I was going to be on the way. I sent them a query and they were interested; I sent them some chapters and they liked them; I sent them the whole book – and they forgot about me. Four weeks went by, six, eight, ten, twelve; finally I wrote them to ask what was what, and they rejected the book. They had sent it to one of their readers, and he had said it needed more action and less talking.
Okay, I know that I’m biased because I wrote the thing. But seriously: did that guy even read it? It’s nothing but action. The first chapter is the pirate’s realization that something is wrong, that he has come to a place he doesn’t understand; his first assumption is that he is in Hell. The second and third chapters are a long chase scene leading to that place, complete with a sea battle with cannons blazing and muskets barking and men dying. The next few chapters are about the pirates discovering a lavish beach house on the coast of Florida, where they end up, and assaulting it, pirate-style. And so on: the pirates mutiny and maroon their captain; they kidnap a carpenter from Home Depot and raid a Piggly-Wiggly; the captain gets into a feud with a Miami street gang. Forty chapters, and there are maybe five that don’t have an action scene.
So naturally, when they rejected the book (And offered to connect me with a content editor who could help me change everything I wrote so that other people would like it more), I assumed that the problem was me. That, in fact, I suck at writing. That my idea of action is not exciting, that I use too many words, that I don’t know what I’m doing, and that I’m not good enough to get published. Of course I had that same idea the whole time I was waiting for their reply, because after about four or six weeks, when they didn’t contact me to say that they were going to publish the book and they wanted me to come in so they could meet me; the rejection was just the final confirmation that I can’t write. That everything I’ve been working for these last twenty years was hopeless, because I’m not good enough to succeed. That’s what I thought. Of course.
Then there was this argument. A friend of mine, a former colleague that I always felt close to because I thought we shared the same ideas about teaching and society and the vital importance of critical thought and rational discussion, came sniping at me and my other friends on Facebook. He was picking a fight about the Second Amendment – this was just after the Pulse massacre in Orlando, and as usual, the gun control memes were making the rounds before they went back into their Tupperware to keep fresh for the next post-massacre discussion – and he was really shitty to people who had commented on an anti-Second Amendment video I had posted on my Facebook page. I went after him for his mistreatment of my friends who were strangers to him, and he defended his shittiness by claiming that they were so painfully ignorant that they were a genuine danger to our society, as was anyone who tried to criticize the right to bear arms. At the same time (Coincidence? Not a chance.), he posted a long rant on his page about how the quality of discourse in our society has collapsed, and now all we do is bark slogans at each other, while waving the flags of our teams – Red and Blue, meaning Republican/Conservative and Democrat/Liberal. He challenged everyone who saw themselves as a Liberal to a debate on the issue, a debate that would go on indefinitely until one person was convinced and both sides actually agreed.
I took the challenge. I am a liberal, and generally a Democrat, though mostly by default, for lack of better, more Progressive candidates to support and because the people on the Red team are fucking nuts. I have, in the past, argued for gun control and the repeal of the Second Amendment, though I am still torn on the issue; basically I think that guns are twisted machines of death, and no one should want them; but I also think that no rational person would ever drink alcohol to excess, smoke cigarettes, or drive fast, and I am generally aware that people should make their own decisions on those things – which leads me to think that maybe people should make their own decisions about guns. Guns are different because of the harm they cause to those other than their possessors; but there are better ways to reduce gun violence, particularly the end of the drug wars and real attempts to solve the economic injustices in society. So my point is that while I do oppose guns and think the Second Amendment is foolishness that has exacerbated the problem, I am also open to the possibility that I am wrong, that the right to bear arms is important and should remain, and that we should try for more practical reductions of gun violence without futzing with the Constitution.
I’ve always had great respect for this man and his knowledge and his ideas, and I wanted to know what he had to say. If anyone was going to convince me that I had the wrong stance on guns, it was this guy, I thought. So I got into the argument.
And here’s how it went. I posted an opening statement that explained why I believed that the Second Amendment is ineffective in what I thought was its purpose: that is, providing citizens the ability to be safer, and acting as a check on government power through the threat of violent revolution. I described how the Amendment made sense at the time it was written, but doesn’t now; not only because the guns have gotten too powerful to be reasonably considered safer in civilian hands than out of them, but also because the government has in no way been checked by the fear of violent revolution: government power has expanded and continues to expand, and the people with the guns are easy to placate by allowing them to keep their guns – while also turning the military into a force that no civilian population could hope to oppose. I also stated that the one source of real power was the will of the people acting in concert, and that the means still exist for peaceful revolution, and that therefore the Constitutional Amendment that protects us from tyranny is the First, not the Second.
My opponent argued that the Constitution was the perfect document, the only hope in a doomed world of barbarians and idiots, and then stated that anyone who tries to change the Constitution was one of those barbarous idiots, an ignorant child who would kill us all with his meddling. He used a colonizing spaceship as his metaphor: the Constitution was the control system, the Amendments ten golden wires, and a child yanked on them without knowing what he was doing and the ship exploded, obliterating everyone on board. He didn’t explain exactly how the Constitution was the one thing keeping us safe, nor how the Second Amendment was the linchpin holding the Constitution together; he simply presented this as the truth: touch the Second Amendment and we all die.
Then, according to the debate format that he created, we asked each other questions. He asked me a half a dozen, and then I asked him a half a dozen, and then he started asking me again.
And that went on for about three weeks. During which time, I realized that everything he was saying was condescending and obnoxious, that his entire stance seemed to be that I just didn’t know what he knew and therefore I was wrong (Which is an ad hominem logical fallacy, if we want to get specific; it doesn’t matter if I’m ignorant, it matters if your argument can hold water by itself. My ignorance of your argument doesn’t disprove my argument; only your argument can do that.), and that, no matter how much I asked, no matter how hard I pushed, he was not willing to actually explain his reasoning until, as he put it, we had gone through a whole lot of “necessary work” to get me into the proper mindset. He said that my stance was based on a faulty epistemological understanding, and he needed to change that. He wouldn’t explain how it was wrong; he just set about trying to manipulate me, through leading and obtuse questions, to the mindset where I was prepared to accept his truth as such.
When I complained about this, asking and then insisting that he simply lay out his argument rather than trying to manipulate me in this way, he said something interesting. “My goal is to change the way you think,” he said. “Everything I do is designed with that end in mind. I’m not trying to argue with you, I’m trying to change you. If you aren’t intending the same thing, an attempt to change the very way I think about the world, then why are you in this argument?”
So I quit. And it still sticks in my craw that I did, because I never actually got to the meat of his argument, never got to see the rationally explained opinions of this guy that I had had respect for. But I did not want my mindset changed, not through manipulation: every time he asked a question, I was immediately resistant: Why is he trying to get me to say this, I would think, and then I would try to find a way to slip out of what I thought was a noose, and I’d qualify and hedge every answer I gave. Which I’m sure was annoying for him, too. I could not handle his condescending attitude, either: because his basic policy was, “I know everything, you know nothing, and when I have deigned to grant you the benefit of my wisdom, you will be better for it. Now shut up and do what you’re told.” But most importantly, I realized: that is not why I entered into the argument. I really just wanted to hear his side. I didn’t care very much about changing his mind – certainly not so deeply that I was willing to plan a grand design whereby I would slowly erode his epistemological understanding of the universe in order to fill the void with my own ideas.
The whole thing was deeply depressing for me. First of all because after I quit, he crowed about his victory; which made me think that he hadn’t ever wanted to have a genuine argument, he just wanted to win, and one way to win an argument is to be such a prick that your opponent surrenders, which is exactly what happened. So I feel as though I can’t help but lose all respect for him, and now I have lost what I thought was a friend—but probably wasn’t, because he set me up to be his patsy in the first place, which shows that actually he never was a friend, which is worse because it makes me an iddiot for years, not just for entering the debate. (This is all speculation, because we’ve had no interaction since the debate; I unfriended him the minute I surrendered, and he probably thinks I’ve thrown a hissy fit over losing, and maybe I have. But that’s not less depressing.)
But secondly, it was depressing because I have always thought of myself as good at arguing: it was one of the reasons I started blogging in the first place, because I hope to be able to influence others and change the world in a positive way, by persuading people of what I see as the truth, or at least opening a rational dialogue. But if arguing, genuinely arguing, is an attempt to change the other person’s very mindset through whatever means are necessary – and I teach argument, and that is precisely what it is – then not only do I suck at arguing, but I don’t want to be good at it. I don’t want to manipulate someone’s very paradigm, I just want to make them think about another aspect of things they maybe haven’t considered. In which case – why am I blogging? If it’s not to argue and help change the world, then what’s the point? I’m not amusing enough to be comic relief from the daily grind, and I’m not a reputable expert in anything; I can’t offer a teacher’s insight into the world of education because I can’t write about my students or anything negative about school without getting in trouble. I can write book reviews, but that’s about it.
And my writing isn’t that good anyway, right? My book got rejected again. My writing is boring. Of course.
So I stopped writing blogs. It was easy: the stats on this blog showed that I got more likes and follows from the book reviews than from my essay posts; and the sometimes funny stuff I post gets ten times the views of anything else. Nobody wants to read my thoughts. Nobody wants to hear my arguments. It’s fine: I have books to write, and a life to live, with all the usual business and busy-ness that entails.
But here’s the problem. I have a lot to say. I have a lot of opinions. My wife, whom I love more than anything and who I hope feels the same about me, and if so I’d like to keep that love, doesn’t want to hear me rant about things that don’t concern her. Things that actually matter to me do concern her, but things like how annoyed I am by Harambe memes or what I think of omens and luck signs and astrology are not matters of importance, and therefore she’s reduced to saying “Mmm-hmm” while she focuses on something important, generally her art. And while I enjoy ranting to my students, that isn’t my job, and therefore I have to limit the time I spend doing that, as I would watch how long I spent at the watercooler gossiping. Maybe there are people who could waste all day every day in doing nothing, but I think my job is important and I want to do it well. Therefore I can’t say everything I want to say. I also have to watch myself with my political opinions, because I don’t want to offend or upset or unduly influence my students.
School has been back in for a month, now, and the pressure has been building. Partly because I haven’t been writing at all, which does strange things to me; but mostly because there are now several things that have made me react, but about which I haven’t been able to talk.
And then this week I realized: what matters is speaking out. What happens after that doesn’t matter. It doesn’t matter if I’m terrible at arguing: I’m good at discussing, and the goal I actually want to strive for is the raising of the level of discourse, getting people to discuss matters in a rational and peaceful way; whether they are convinced of the rightness of my opinion afterward doesn’t matter. It doesn’t matter if no one reads these essays. What matter is that I write them. It matters that I publish them because that is the most important part of the writing process, actually presenting your words to someone else. But how many people read them, like them, care about them – none of that matters.
Because I cannot control anyone else; only myself. I am not responsible for anyone’s reactions to my work; I am only responsible for my work. And for me, that has to include essays. Essays that are too long, essays that are too personal, essays that are occasionally unnecessarily angry and perhaps even profane. That’s who I am, and that’s what I do.
And it’s high time I got back to doing it.
So here I am, world. Back again on my soapbox, ranting at passersby who won’t thank me for the manic spittle I spray at them. (Sorry; got a little on you, there.) You don’t have to stop, you don’t have to read, you don’t have to respond, though you are welcome to do all three, if you wish. I will keep writing book reviews, and I will try to post funny stuff when I can. And I will also be writing whatever I want to write, because that’s the only way to be what I am.
I’m a writer. And a writer writes, always.