A Life is Not a Story


by Mike Amnasan

Now that I’m seventy-three I can tell you about the life of a failed writer. This is something no one is likely to have read or will read. A successful writer would not be able to write this. His experience would be very different. Repeated rejection has taken a toll on my personality, causing resentment that worsens my chances of getting published.

When my son was younger he sometimes asked me to tell him a story to help him get to sleep. He thought that since I was a fiction writer I should be able to provide him with one. I had to tell him that I wasn’t good at making up stories. That’s why I’ve finally switched from fiction to writing this. What am I trying to achieve through this writing? I want to create a serious life, one in which I can look out the front window of our apartment and feel myself to be someone who belongs in the world I see out there. Why is that so difficult, and why should it depend on my finally writing something that can’t be ignored? My desire for recognition is simpler than any hope that my writing will benefit society. I’m more like a child who wants his mother to see him go down the slide. Perhaps I want an accurate accounting. There isn’t a word for what it feels like for an adult looking out a window to want to be a person whose qualities are known to intelligent people out there. Maybe if there was, we would have a new emotion, and I could talk about this emotion that grips me and you would have some sense of what I long for. Wanting to be judged fairly by the people in my life motivated me to look toward communities I wasn’t invited into to try to find that accounting. But I also wanted to recreate all the magnificence of a human standing in a room, something that language can’t capture. Imagine a series of faces shown one after another of people from different areas of the world or different neighborhoods, one after another as an unspoken legacy. No person can be summed up through writing. A person is always more than a description. That’s something I have always felt when I imagine another person. I never see people only as things they have said.

The most dramatic change in my life was getting into a construction trade in my mid-thirties. Before that I’d been doing minimum-wage factory work, and living off a girlfriend who worked more steadily than me. Earlier still, I slept in a car for a while, on a rooftop, in an ally. I couldn’t find a job that I could stand for long, and I wasn’t helpful to anyone else, having so little confidence in what I could do. I can’t now remember what I was really like back then, and perhaps that’s something most writers won’t want to admit regarding their subject–though I can offer some accurate statements. Late in my life, the money I got from construction work allowed me to go back to school. I got a PhD in philosophy just before I turned sixty at which time I became lonelier than ever before even though I had a family.

I have had no overriding goal other than developing an intelligence through which to take on issues other people avoid or conveniently simplify. I met my wife, Sandra, while I was in graduate school. I was older than most of the faculty. Simon was born while I was working on my dissertation. When I began writing I hoped that if I was observant and articulate and saw things that others missed that this in itself, would be enough for me to gain recognition. I thought that being outside the social networks of people with advantages would give me a unique perspective. Imagine intelligence emerging in unexpected places where smart people could report about what’s happening from the outskirts of society? Wouldn’t the world then seem more transparent?

Think of some low status monkey. From its marginal perspective it sees the whole troop. Writing could give that marginalized individual a purpose out there where no one cares to look. The people with opportunities would not then be creating stories for us all. From what I’ve read published writers are a far more exclusive group of people than any other. The individuals who they circulate among have so much to offer, and they’re in love with humanity because the only people they meet are successful. As I got older, I began to realize that the exclusion of people like me would create a little bit of heaven for well-positioned individuals who have brighter dispositions, more open expressions, who are better company for one another than I would ever be.

People with advantages, including white men were already in the literary world when more attention rightfully went to social justice issues. They could be generous regarding previously excluded writers without bowing out to provide others with their place. The good white men, like all others in their positions, had opportunities to offer. People with money and position became those capable of the greatest altruism. I help no one while alone with nothing to offer.

My wife and son don’t understand my loneliness. There’s no reason why they would. They’ve never seen my writing as different from the other things they see me do in our apartment. Writing has been a part of my life since I was eighteen, but it hasn’t resulted in lasting recognition, or invitations to appear somewhere in the capacity of a writer. Nevertheless, I can feel like a writer while I’m keying these words into my laptop since that’s what a writer does. What you’re now reading can’t give me much satisfaction without recognition from other people who aren’t likely to read this. I don’t need recognition to continue trying to write something that will impress people and change my life, and it has taken me a lifetime to learn how to talk about what is different about how I think.

Philosophers have claimed that they have a broader view of the world than people doing more specialized work. It never occurred to the men who made this claim that a broader view would have to include much they don’t care about, or that they would find cringe-worthy. It must include people who have no interest in their philosophical views, and it must include things they would never choose to look at. The closest I can come to achieving this broader view is through including more aspects of problems into my thoughts than I would like to consider or can remain conscious of. This is stressful. The more I include, the more random this information becomes with greater complexity. Factoring more into my consideration of problems is an emotional project that most people can’t bear, something Nietzsche would attest to. It makes philosophy less a discipline that anyone might choose to study and excel at as a learned scholar, than a project that requires an emotional predisposition to think differently. I can’t help but think differently, and I don’t really care if this is considered philosophy or something else. Why would I? I don’t relate to other people. This is not because I lack empathy, but because I don’t resemble other people sufficiently. I must have read authors who I identified with when I was younger, but not anymore. I have the defensive tendency to believe everyone is wrong about me. It’s a weakness that comes out of rejection. It’s hard for a failed writer like me to acknowledge how much I’m effected by editors and agents. How can I acknowledge the importance to me of people who don’t take me seriously? I have less control over how I think than I like to believe.

If I’m talking to other people and feel that they are impressed with what I’ve been saying, I feel embarrassed. Why? I realize that this favorable regard for me can’t last. Identifying with others means so much to people. This is something they can’t do for long with me—but my problem is generally simpler than that. I feel so much energy surging through my body if I receive favorable attention that I need to get away from people to calm down, and perhaps it’s this that embarrasses me: that my metabolism is different. I’m overwhelmed by an especially favorable regard. I can’t predict how people will take my uncomfortable flight from their presence when they were so receptive to what I was saying. There are always people who remain after I’ve left. This is what I imagine happens once I’m gone. Friendships are formed.

How could I still think I could gain much attention when I haven’t succeeded up till now? Language is magical in its capacity to produce errant beliefs. I rarely even notice that I’m deluding myself. I never give up on my lonely project. I don’t regard my own drives as reasonable. I don’t trust whatever compels me to write what you are now reading. I don’t understand it. I don’t know how I might change what I’m now writing so that it might be better received—though there are plenty of writers who would be happy to tell me. Why would I work on writing every day that no one other than me is interested in reading? This effort should end with that knowledge, but it seems that it is natural for me to regard writing as magical in the changes it could make in my life. We are all deluded. Survival required self-delusion as soon as animals became conscious. They needed to believe they were in the center of the world and of the greatest importance to successfully compete with one another and I suspect that delusion lingers in me, even if it is weakened by my further reflection—is it? I can’t say for sure. It guides this effort for no reason I can understand. The drive that allowed animals to compete is interfering with our ability to create a better society. Overconfidence is guiding every effort that has a chance of success. A better understanding of the world will complicate our thoughts in ways that will be unpopular and lead to personal failure. It has done that for me. The world was not made for us, something every algorithm is designed to rectify, to give us what we can be convinced we want in place of a bigger world that doesn’t care about us. Nietzsche realized that any individual who saw the world accurately would not be able to compete with beings who were deluded in a way that favored their survival.

I now live in Amsterdam. I didn’t choose to live in the Netherlands. I wanted to live in a place with different priorities from those that prevail in America and my wife wanted to live here. She made plans to start a pottery studio which she has since carried out and this allows us to stay here through an entrepreneurial visa. I’m retired. I’m not going to work here, unless you can call this work. I’m okay with being a foreigner. I was foreign to the people I grew up around, and the constant drizzle is good writing-weather.

It has always been difficult for me to retain friendships with people I talked to about my greatest concerns since my claims can be hard to hold in mind and they will be a distraction from what this person must focus on to succeed. Moving to Amsterdam, a place strange to me, seemed more likely to change me for the better than continuing to consider where I had gone wrong earlier in my life. Feeling alone in the world has become more intense for me here. I never would have guessed, back when I thought of myself as a promising writer in my mid-thirties, that I would now be in Amsterdam, writing this long memoir no one else reads, with the appropriately gloomy drizzle.

My son is thirteen. Simon is now almost as tall as I am, but thinner. He hates to be ordinary, and fears that he is. At the same time, he doesn’t want to stand out as different. He’s above me laughing at something he’s watching on his iPad. I had to build a floor out of plywood to make him an A-framed room. His floor lies across the rafters. I write here at my small desk underneath that floor. We are in a sixth-floor walkup of an old building with a peaked roof. He is changing, becoming a larger flesh and blood person who imposes his will, as he becomes a man with a body growing in size and strength and a mind yet unprepared for the society he will have to negotiate, and what example do I provide him with?

Although I believe my conversation is often appreciated by a friend, the thought of getting together with me is anticipated with anxiety. The prospect of getting together with this friend will cause some concern in me as well since I will want to discuss discomforting issues that will be unlikely to benefit either of us. The way I think includes feeling stupid during periods when I’m sitting at my desk. While writing this, I’m also often trying to find distractions from a life without purpose or meaning. When I impress people with the things I say emotions well up in me that I struggle to keep from showing in my face. I feel the shame of revealing a difference in how my body reacts to situations involving other people. What should I feel after I claim to be different from everyone else? —but I could only differ in some respects and not others. Should I feel proud, embarrassed, silly, honest about who I am, or should I admit to myself that I was pretending to be someone I’m not. All those things are true at the same time, but only within some conversations. In most situations, my claim to difference would be laughable. Do I have an alignment problem? People working in AI may worry that their creations, having taken over their own learning, will no longer serve their interests, but an alignment problem in a human simply means that I can be ignored, that I’m not doing the things that will merit attention.  My mother didn’t reproduce when she had me, she produced something different instead, and this is bound to happen with complex animals. It is the irony of the drive to reproduce. Such complex entities as us never reproduce ourselves. My case is simply more extreme. My parents didn’t even produce a good approximation of themselves.

My father didn’t speak English well when he entered school for the first time. At home his family spoke Romanian. Other students made fun of him. During most of his life, he taught auto mechanics in a high school. He liked to watch T.V. after dinner. His favorite sitcoms were Hogan’s Heroes and McHale’s Navy. They were comedies that showed that war and even incarceration in a Nazi concentration camp can be light and humorous if your clever enough to trick your captors into serving your interests. These shows celebrated American ingenuity in conning our enemies. I hated these characters, but I must have sat and watched long enough to develop disdain for this lighthearted trickster persona. I can’t picture now how we all watched, my mother, father, and my older sister, Kathy. We wouldn’t all fit on the couch facing the TV. There must have been a comfy chair or two. The couch had a plastic cover on it for a while to protect it from accidental spills. I was there. I wasn’t retreating to my room. My life then couldn’t have been as bad as the story I have created in my mind. I apparently exaggerate the terrible strain I felt living with my family. I would be taken by surprise when I heard a family member’s logic that was so different from how I thought—but how different really? My thoughts were as petty as any teenagers, guided by overwrought emotions that are common to that age. I listen to Simon now and I can imagine the kind of things I would say back when I was his age, statements that I would be embarrassed to include here if they were not long ago forgotten. They were so unlike the story I created of my past since then.

My father hung a plaque in his garage that read “If you’re so smart, why ain’t you rich.” I believe the character who accompanied this homely message had a cigar in his mouth and maybe a fishing hat on his head, clearly not to be mistaken for an intellectual. The plaque was meant to say that you may sound smart, but if you’re not making money, your intelligence has no value. This is the entrepreneurial message, which could be popular with both people who would appreciate my father’s plaque and those who would see it as sign of an ignorant man. I see a populist, anti-intellectual side to the tech movement. Tech billionaires are very focused on their work and expect the same from their employees. Only those who are “all in,” can join their inner circles. They don’t understand that the more intensely they focus on their projects the more blind they become to everything else. The prose you are now reading is one form of everything else. Even the philosopher who opposes himself to specialized thinkers is more specialized than the prose writer who writes about a life that, if accurately rendered, will be more complicated than a story.

My parents had once threatened to leave me at a sanitarium for the mentally ill. How can I not remember what I had done to warrant this response? I don’t. There was always the concern that if I was emotionally disturbed, and perhaps I was, that I was doing it on purpose, like some irritating game I was stubbornly playing; I could stop at any time if I really wanted to. In high school, a school administrator stopped me in a hall to tell me that if I didn’t snap out it I would become a heroin addict. Though I was clearly unhappy, and terrible shy among groups of people, what did this person, who had never spoken to me until then, expect me to do—and why a heroin addict? Is it only in America that people believe that we can, with enough determination, bring our emotions in line with positive goals. I don’t want to be aligned with other people’s goals, and this includes what I’m now writing. I don’t want to evoke the feelings through this prose that you will recognize as right for the situations I describe. That’s the role of commercial fiction, to allow us to feel the correct, and appropriately impassioned, emotions for every situation called up. How possible is that in any individual’s life? How often in our actual lives are we caught in a situation where we worry that we’re not feeling what we should, where we may even feel the opposite of what we should? Is there anything wrong with that? What comfort does reading a novel provide that allows us to feel exactly what we’re supposed to? My life has never been that simple. My aberrant behavior that I honestly can’t remember was ruining my family. I was told this in a note my mother left on my pillow. She wasn’t there. Shouldn’t this kind of message be delivered in person? I left home with just the jacket I was wearing. I slept in a big galvanized drainage pipe in the hills above the small track homes neatly laid out in the valley below. It gets cold at night in a desert. I got out of that drainage pipe at twilight and walked down the mountain—more a large hill–scratching at the spider bites on my arms.

After that first night, I stayed in the house of my girlfriend, Gus, for a while. Her given name was Rosemary. She didn’t like it. She had been a chubby child and was given the nickname Gus after the fat mouse in the Disney version of Cinderella. I slept on her family’s living room couch. Late at night, when her family was asleep, she would be lying on the carpet arching her back while I pulled down her flannel pajama bottoms. I remember Gus as the first person I felt to be on my side. We both thought we were going to become artists.

My memory is getting worse–but the point of what you’re reading is less to remember my past than to realize that the person I’m trying to remember is gone forever. That’s what a life is like.

When I was in my thirties, I drove east with Jessica. We met in San Francisco. She had come into the Small Press Traffic book store where I volunteered on the weekends. I was sitting behind the desk at the front of the store. She later told me that when she first asked me a question I had seemed unfriendly. I was in my thirties. We became a couple. We were driving to New York City. We had a polaroid camera. Taking pictures along the way seemed to make the experience more available to us. One of us accidentally dropped the camera. It tumbled down a rocky slope, and while falling took one last picture of rock and sky. We soon bought another camera from a pharmacy. I dread looking at photographs of myself now. They always seem to catch me with an elderly expression on my face. Perhaps that’s the only kind of expression I have now. I can’t time travel, and I don’t sound anything like I did during the times I recall. My thoughts were rushed. My vocabulary was smaller and I looked so different when I was twenty, and thought differently, as differently as another person altogether. The voice in what I’m now writing, often doesn’t seem to fit the occasions I remember. At other times, I don’t notice. For me the most beautiful writing does little more than distract from the world out there to create its own appeal within the narrow focus of the reader, in an unconditional sense. It reflects making use of words that are only words trying to do more than they can. I don’t know why that appeals to me. Writing shouldn’t preserve anything we cherish, truth, love, whatever. The closest we can come to expressing ourselves is not in the past. If I try to tell you what I really want to write about and look to my past, it’s not there.

A Life is Not a Story

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