Getting Philosophical about Bad Writing

I’m reading a badly-written book. It’s also one of the books I think I most identify with as a life philosophy. This is where my ability to read between the lines and extract only what I like comes in handy, because the majority of the book is the kind of trash I hope I’m never reduced to writing.

I suspect most “readers” have books they love that they secretly have a hard time defending.

For me, The Fountainhead and Atlas Shrugged fall into that category. They’re complete crap, from a writing point of view. She’s tedious, redundant, overly dramatic, black/white in her characters, arrogantly simplistic in her views of how the average person is. Even her philosophies are so ridiculously black/white that they’re just laughable, and it’s why the book has met with such disdain for seven decades.

Arguably, if I ever had a drink with Ayn Rand, I’d pitch my drink in her face. She seems wholly unlikable in her ridiculous in-book dialogue, if it’s any kind of reflection of who she is — and given the monotonous voice in which all her characters speak, it’s absolutely reflecting her.

And yet…

Probably no book has defined my values in life creatively or professionally more than The Fountainhead has. (Or, as some I’ve known would argue, the more literary approach to the ‘selfishness as a virtue’ concept, aka egoism, is found with more palatable shades of grey in Ken Kesey’s Sometimes a Great Notion.)

***

I’ve been going through a “thing” in the last couple of days. I’m tired of people, not from a “let’s hang out” point of view, but from an ideological point of view. I’m tired of flip-floppy sorts I see everywhere in the media, in social media, and in daily life. (Flip-floppy — ethically, I mean, not, say, being vegetarian then not. Consistency in ethical behaviour is everything, IMHO.)

There are those who cannot be painted with that brush — they’re people I admire, enjoy, and am more inclined to see than most others (if I suggest doing things with you EVER, you’re in this group) — but there are many who leave me exasperated at who and what they are.

I’m under no illusions of how many people like or dislike me. I’d like to say I don’t care who doesn’t like me, but that’d be a lie. Everyone wants to be liked.

But there are indeed people whose opinions mean shit to me. They’re the folks whose opinions are easily bought and sold, or who worry about being seen at all the right places all the time, seem scared to be alone with their thoughts, or who have elevated fake sincerity to brand-new heights.

It’s understandable such people might find me hard to take. That’s fine; it’s mutual.

The trouble with being in the modern world, living a 24/7 plugged-in life is: You see people more often, whether in digital form or in the flesh — and, when it comes to online, who they are lingers on-screen for so much longer. As does my ability to judge them.

And the more I see people, the more they’re out there trying to be seen/heard/loved, the more I find them being insincere or full of platitudes — and not worth my time.

I’m being reminded as I skim through The Fountainhead just how socially ill-equipped I can be at times. People like me, sure, but they dislike me just as often.

I don’t have that internal censor most people have. I blurt things out. It’s terrible. I seldom mean things as brashly as they sound, but lord knows it gets misconstrued. At least I’m honest and I say the things I really think, so anyone who doesn’t dig me generally does so for arguably valid reasons. And if they dislike me for being myself, being honest, then I figure they’ve saved me the time of getting to know them, since they’re obviously Not My Sort.

Also, the older I get, the more I think I won’t be bought, and it’s beginning to make me question my desire for self-employment, given the Schmooze Factor required.

***

Trivia? I made the mistake of selling Filter Queen vacuums for about 2 weeks when I was 18. It became a lesson in who I never, ever wanted to be. Filter Queen vacuums might come with a lifetime warranty, but it was 19 years ago & then were priced $1498. For a vacuum. Yeah. About $400 was commission.

I can sell. God knows I can sell. I can almost smell who has money to blow.

Example: I once worked at a toy store (’96–97) and had an $8 “train whistle” sale with this lady, and while ringing it up, got into small-talk with the customer, who owned a special private preschool in South Korea. 45 minutes later, I got to charge $1900 on her card as I sold her toys from all around the store.

Did I feel guilty? No, she had the money to spend.

But when it was a few years earlier, my Filter Queen bosses demanded I pressure a family of five living in a 2-bedroom rented condo and barely making ends meet, to buy this ridiculously overpriced vacuum — “always make the sale,” very Glengarry Glenn Ross–like — and it went against every value I ever had.

So, I sold one, not to Condo Family, then quit.

***

These days, I can’t do it. I can’t do product reviews out of expectations, just for free crap. I can’t do sponsored tweets. I don’t want to avail myself for free shit at restaurants just so I can tweet about it, etc. Do I begrudge those who do? No, not in the least. Everyone needs to eat.

But I can’t do that. Not right now. I’m done.

I want to go out of life knowing I met my standards, knowing I never compromised myself for your benefit, or anyone else’s.

Doing “swag” reviews, for example, are just not my bag. Lord knows I’ve tried. Life would be easier if my stupid ethics didn’t get in my way, but they do, and to deny them would be foolish, to live without them would be denying everything I am.

Will I make it to the other side of life without compromising? Ever? Probably not. Probably not even close. But I can avoid major concessions. I can avoid the things that make me wake up with the durrrty morning-after feeling.

***

And no matter how ridiculously extreme the character of Howard Roark is made in The Fountainhead, I “get” him. I get the idea of never compromising your art. I get the concept of “any means necessary” being too high a price to pay if it means losing what makes your work you. I get the concept of not using one’s name for others’ benefit, especially when others’ ethos aren’t meshing with my own.

The older I become, though, the more I find I’m inflexible about what my values are and why. Does it make me the perfectly moral person? Jesus, no.

Does it make me a better writer? Hmm. Good question. I would hope so. Less and less, I find myself writing because you should have something to read. More and more, I find myself writing only when life inspires me to do so. This is good. Too bad it’s so infrequent.

I should write more. I would like to do just that. This recent picking-up-of-books-and-even-reading-them thing is a big change for me, after years of barely reading. I hope it rekindles my love of words.

***

In a way, I’m going back to The Fountainhead because it was the start of something for me. Out of everything that was in my life when I was 18, the only things that remain are writing and photography. Only, I write far more now, and far better.

But, when I read The Fountainhead, something about Howard Roark’s idea of architecture, and the metaphor it could be for all things in life, resonated with me then and screams in agreement with me now.

I want to be a more streamlined writer. I want to be moved to do things in life because they take me closer to goals — likely not what you think; a bungalow on the ocean would do me fine & allow me the simple life I crave, the life that gets lost in this city.

Like Howard Roark sees architecture, I kind of see life and creativity right now:

Rules? Here are my rules: what can be done with one substance must never be done with another. No two materials are alike. No two sites on earth are alike. No two buildings have the same purpose. The purpose, the site, the material determine the shape. Nothing can be reasonable or beautiful unless it’s made by one central idea, and the idea sets every detail. A building is alive, like a man. Its integrity is to follow its own truth, its one single theme, and to serve its own single purpose. A man doesn’t borrow pieces of his body. A building doesn’t borrow hunks of its soul. Its maker gives it the soul and every wall, window, and stairway to express it.

I realise I’ve come to despise ornate architecture, people who incessantly overdress, haughty writing, and intellectuals who think their degree is some sort of validation of who they are just because they’ve got paper to prove it.

I want simple, real things. Simple, real people. I want ideas that are whole and expansive, that don’t come with qualifying, egos, and justification. I want people who are endlessly authentic and can’t be bought, quiet conversations and zero flash.

I want to feel like I write for the sake of writing — not to sell ads, not for your fulfillment, not to make the world a better place, but for the most pure reason of all: To explore ideas and give voice to thoughts. My voice.

I want these things.

Unfortunately, I live in the real world where such ethos don’t pay the rent. The balancing act between how idealistic I can be while still putting food on my table, well, it’s a struggle. It will probably remain a struggle.

And part of the life I want, part of the goals I’d love to achieve, might require I rethink what I’m willing to do for success or not.

I’ve been lost in thought on these struggles for a couple of weeks now, but it’s escalated this week. Tomorrow is my birthday. I’m hoping some great epiphany dawns tonight in which I finally realize how I can reconcile both professional and personal values into one amazing existence.

Something tells me that’s a birthday gift I won’t be receiving just yet. Fortunately, I’m not hung up on deadlines.

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