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“Let’s go to the writers’ conference in March. It’s being held in Seattle. We’ve never been to Seattle.”
“You know, the writers’ conference: we went last year, in Boston. It’s being held in Seattle this year.”
“Come on, you had a good time in Boston, admit it.”
“I ate some mighty good food.”
“I mean, at the conference.”
“We arrived in the middle of a blizzard and the conference included the biggest gaggle of geeks I have ever seen.”
“That’s because you approached it with your typical rotten attitude: Mr. Writer, Mr. Artist. You’re so precious. If you had taken the time to look, you would have found all sorts of helpful people there — publishers, agents …”
“Grad students and university adjuncts who will never make a living with their writing. People dressed in weird outfits, pretending they’re someone else. Geeks galore.”
“There’s some great restaurants and markets in Seattle.”
“OK, in that case I’ll go.”
I decide to research the conference. I go to the association’s quarterly publication. What I find confirms everything I believe about the art world — most particularly about literary and visual arts. It almost convinces me to refuse to go to Seattle.
In brief: The art train left the tracks in the U.S. back in the ’60s when the notion that just about anyone could, and should be an “artist” took hold in colleges and universities. (It has since infected K-12 education.) Affluence and leisure gave birth to the fiction that anyone could write and paint, sing, act and play, and live la vie boheme in comfort — that one needn’t prepare for a standard occupation, for a traditionally productive role. After all, we need the arts as much as we need food, air, water, shelter and love, don’t we?
Soon, it became apparent this was a somewhat misguided approach, and the emphasis shifted to channeling would-be artistes into higher reaches of academia, to programs offering a master’s of fine arts or a master’s of creative writing, with the veiled promise of a job in the arts education factory. If you couldn’t live comfortably as an artist, you could do so by teaching naive kids while pretending to be an artist. The same happened in the world of theatre and entertainment; legions of high school students became “stars” and were encouraged by vacuous adults to pursue a life on stage and in film. Any clown who picked up a guitar was given a standing ovation and urged to stalk fame.
The wealth and ease in a large segment of American society bred illusion, and the illusion, in turn, engendered an Ouroboros of a system, one that devours and lives on itself, producing, in fact, very few credible artists.
Little was made of the fact that a “career” in the arts, with few exceptions, is a long, difficult and often unrewarding trek. Little was said when it came time to reveal the truth: only a few rise to the top — however that “top” is defined.
My perceptions are fortified as I skim the quarterly. What are interesting are the ads from the colleges and universities for their MFA programs — where you, too, can become a “writer” and fulfill your dreams. (They could just as easily be touting an art, theater, or music school.)
Nearly all the ads pimp the ride with a list of faculty members and visiting writers and instructors — a marquee, designed to attract eager neophytes like moths to a bank of bright lights.
The problem: I don’t know any of the names.
The names are displayed in a way that implies these bright lights have done great things, produced great works.
But, who the hell are they?
The answer is obvious: They are the previous generation of moths, wreckage tossed on the academic beach by the tsunami called “reality.” No doubt most of them have had a few stories or poems published in obscure journals. A few have had novels or books of verse published by a nondescript house, in a run so small as to be meaningless. They are aging moths, members of a third generation, themselves once attracted by a marquee listing of folks, most now dead, most deposited in the ash pit for failed scribes.
It is a great racket: gullible folks convinced to take out loans in order to sit with like souls, snuggled up with old moths in order to talk about what they should be doing all the time, by themselves if, indeed, they are serious about their creative work; folks hoping to be inducted into the Hall of Moths, moving from the back of the room to the front, seeing their names published in ads promoting an MFA program at an obscure college.
Not exactly what Joyce or Hemingway did. Surely not what Miller or Bukowski did. Not the path taken by Virginia Woolf. But, you play the cards you’re dealt and if those cards are lies, you need to either make the best of it or take your own life in a seedy motel room in Kingman, Arizona, once the illusion evaporates.
The art world has become an academic factory. These “artists” survive in a self-reinforcing system. Those who pick the few “artists” who escape and achieve a measure of renown are, themselves, products of the factory. Most of the true gatekeepers in the Western cultural world died 20 years ago and moths fluttered in to take their places.
The ads tell me important things.
For example, a significant number of the noted faculty members use an initial for their first name. This is a code of some sort, meaning, I suspect, that the person survived an appropriately difficult childhood and, in an act of courageous rebirth, rejects who they once were in favor of a creative someone-to-be. Or, perhaps, they have a goofy first name.
An equally great number bear some sort of ethnic name: Lightbear, Faqwar, etc.
As I scan the ads, it dawns on me: Hey, this is right up my alley! A bunch of half-accomplished dilettantes masquerading as talented mentors to the next generation of dilettantes, and getting paid for it.
I fit right in!
I craft a letter of introduction/application.
Dear Dr. L. Ibrahim Festoon:
Allow me to introduce myself and make it known that I desire a position on the staff at your illustrious institution. I am not well acquainted with Cloudy Bottom University of The Ozarks, but that is because your school lacks a Division I football program.
Nonetheless, I am sure Cloudy Bottom U. and I will be a perfect fit. You are dedicated to the birth of artistes, and I am an enthusiastic midwife.
Like the faculty and visiting staff you list in your ad for your MFA program, I too have had numerous pieces of work appear in obscure if not essentially unknown publications — in my case, more than 500 pieces, each 1,500 to 2,500 words in length, in a journal printed in my hometown of Siberia With a View. I have a fan who might vouch for me. I can supply a phone number and e-mail address on request, if I am able to secure them.
I have included examples of my work and once you rip from them a thin veneer of shallow satire and simpleminded observations, you will spend hours delighted by a difficult search for meaning in the multicultural debris that remains.
My strongest attribute: A nearly supernatural ability to deceive myself and others into believing that anyone can be an artist. I will, in short, issue a clarion call to those who wish to join our ranks, urging them to incur debt they will be unable to resolve and to hold out hope of low-wage, part-time work at institutions such as Cloudy Bottom U. I will embody all that is best in this incestuous system and in your university.
I am able to communicate across cultural and gender lines (see the enclosed essay concerning my fascination with transgender websites) and am relatively well behaved in the company of women. I am also old and, if you reject my application, I will file an age discrimination suit.
I indulge in intoxicants, but I am sure most of your faculty members are impelled to do the same, given the reality of their situations. I have not, to date, lost my driver’s license, so be assured I will arrive on time for class with my eager proteges, barring unforeseen and understandable “writer’s difficulties.” An occasional stint in rehab looks good on an artist’s resume, don’t you think?
Can’t wait to see Cloudy Bottom’s booth at the job fair; no doubt, the MFA candidates will do a swell job with the decorations. And I am thrilled by the possibility we will soon be colleagues.
K. Al Shofar (aka Many Rainbows) Isberg.
I am pretty worked up about the conference now that I have a strategy. In a culture in which everyone can and should be an artist or a star, we need experienced guides to take neophytes by the hands and pull them through the labyrinth that leads to an MFA and, if not a part-time instructor’s job, to a decent shift at Starbuck’s or The Olive Garden.
I can’t wait to be asked to deliver the graduation address to a group of bright-eyed MFA recipients.
In the meantime, I am on to a more important task: researching dining opportunities in Seattle.
I am determined to visit the famed Pike Place Market and I find a French-style brasserie at the site. They offer duck confit, with crispy thyme potatoes.
A confit is easy to pull off, especially with duck, goose or pork, given the commercial availability of fats. Duck legs are the ticket. They cook oh-so-slowly in fat (their own, and purchased), at 300 or so, for three hours. The duck legs, with thighs attached, are trimmed then rubbed thoroughly with a mix of Kosher salt, ground black pepper, chopped fresh thyme and bay leaf, and kept overnight in a large, sealed plastic bag with 10 or so crushed cloves of garlic. The trimmings are slowly rendered with some water and, when the water evaporates, the fat is added to four cups or so of purchased duck fat. The fat is heated, the oven preheated. The duck legs are wiped clean and put in a single layer in a deep baking dish. The fat is poured over the legs, covering them; the pan is covered with foil and into the oven it goes.
The duck can be stored, immersed in the fat, for quite some time (this was, in fact, a technique devised to preserve meats). A few days or weeks in the fat enriches the flavor. When ready to use, take the legs from the fat, (warm the dish holding the duck fat in a pan of warm water to melt the fat before carefully removing the legs) gently scrape remaining fat from the meat, then crisp up the legs, skin side down, in a heavy frying pan or grill them skin side down until crispy good. Save the fat for a batch of double-cooked French fries.
Another French joint in Seattle, mere steps away according to Google, offers octopus with fennel sausage, and a manchego rabbit roulade. What’s not to like about manchego? What’s not to like about rabbit? What’s not to like about meat and cheese, rolled?
Seattle, without seafood?
Not a chance.
An oyster bar in the Ballard neighborhood (any idea where that is?) provides a wide variety of the bivalves as well as a fave treat: grilled sardines.
There’s an Italian place near the convention site: braised romano beans, with sausages, fried risotto balls. A “gastropub” is close by, with one of my all-time hits — salt cod fritters. The word—“gastropub” is troubling, but I can get over it.
I locate a purveyor of pork belly and kimchi pancakes and a restaurant called “How to Cook a Wolf.” I’m going there just because of the name. Wolf on the menu? I certainly hope so.
I better enjoy these delights while in Seattle.
After all, K. Al Shofar (aka Many Rainbows) Isberg will not be able to afford them once he gets his dream job.