Saturday, December 10, 2016

I Know Where I've Been: Finding Inspiration in Difficult Times

How do we find inspiration to make art in difficult times? What kind of art should we make when our lives are being disrupted by the most absurd and clearly corrupt election in decades? What should be our response?

It's been raining nearly every day and night here in the San Francisco Bay Area. I've not gone out as much as I usually do, and turning it all off to watch a movie or read a book has become a sort of conscious avoidance.

Usually, rainy days and nights are a great inspiration to stay in and be creative. I did some of that; sorted, filed and photographed all of my visual art (yes, I do that, too), refiled manuscripts and research files, and even converted a few old VHS tapes of my dance and performance works to DVDs.

But doing administrative work is not creating work. And as the rain continues, despite the ecologic good it's doing for our drought-ridden state, the rain feeds my sense of dread.

One of the many attempts to 'keep hope alive' phrases written by my fellow artists and gay activists goes along the lines of 'We survived Reagan and Bush. We will survive this."

Well, actually, many didn't survive. Unlike millions of stupid Trump voters (and 'protest voters' for Jill Stein or the absurdly inane Gary Johnson), I remember where we've been. 

Hundreds of thousands died of AIDS under Reagan and Bush 1's regimes, and thousands of U.S. military and more than a million Iraqis died under Bush II's illicit regime, including those lost on 9/11, due to Bush/Cheney's negligence (or culpability). So I don't really feel that gung ho spirit that others espouse.

Eric Arvin
In other sad news, on top of all the talented celebrities dying this year, one of my author colleagues, Eric Arvin, who has been bed-ridden and incapacitated after a brain injury, is basically about to die, since his latest round of medications are not working. 

Arvin's books have been a great inspiration. I reviewed a few, and he blurbed my Lambda Literary Award winner Every Time I Think of You five years ago.

While it's true that loss, and pain, and repressive politics have of course inspired many authors, it's not so easy to create while you're experiencing it.

We're in a very fragile state right now. As quoted in a LitHub article with 22 authors discussing Trump (before the election), writer George Saunders says, "I’ve never before imagined America as fragile, as an experiment that could, within my very lifetime, fail. But I imagine it that way now."

Author John Irving, wrote, "I don’t take what Trump says seriously, but I am seriously worried about the number of people who are as angry, as ignorant, as misinformed or shallowly informed as he is."

As I wrote before, I was rather declarative about distancing myself from such people as potential readers. A few have popped up, with poorly written critiques of a few of my books, each one glaringly ignorant of my work and its themes, purpose and style.

So, are we now supposed to placate such Deporables in the arts? Will Chachi and Chuck Norris make a comeback? Will Ted Nugent play at the Inauguration?

Variety asked several people in the entertainment world (before the election) just how they would respond to a Trump regime. Will they be expected to whip up sitcoms about rightwing gun-toting pro-Nazi Red Staters?  

As Trump's proposed appointees continue to resemble a gang of comic book villains, will TV shows like Gotham just roll over and let the bad guys win?

Numerous films and TV series already depict oppressive U.S. dystopian regimes, but they were meant as cautionary tales, not as a playbook.

My own writing, come to think of it, was often made while under duress. Whether under-employed, or going through personal problems, I managed to scribble out what became my five published (and several more unpublished) novels and dozens of short stories. Yet today, this week, this month, inspiration has failed to rise up.

There is some good news, albeit small. My latest book, the short story collection Forty Wild Crushes, received an Honorable Mention in the annual online Rainbow Awards LGBT book competition. Well, it's not so much a competition as an honor roll, posted by prolific blogger and author Eliza Rolle. 

Being categorized in Humor, I guess is fine, since some of the stories are funny. It's among more than a hundred books listed, so putting it in a different category may help it stand out. It really is amazing how many books in LGBT categories are published each year, so many that it's hard to choose which ones to read.

But we do read, because remaining obsessed with the latest horrid news of the impending Trump regime –which is appallingly stupid to anyone with a shred of intelligence– is hardly productive when you want to be inspired by writing and other arts.

Many are recommending classic dystopian novels as to-read books. But it's somewhat redundant to read a literary warning while the actual horror is becoming reality.

Yes, it's time for action, for directly complaining to our elected officials to not roll over basic human and environmental rights or let Russian hackers, fake news, and outright ballot fraud reduce the U.S.A. to a corproate Putin-controlled neo-fascist oligarchy. 

Because, to take a somewhat selfish view, a collapsing nation is not good for book sales. When people fear for their basic rights, curling up to a fictional book isn't high on their to-do lists. Writing my congressman/woman should be more important than writing beautifully descriptive prose, at least for a while.

Balancing the needs of making art and being forced into a perpetual reactive stance to corruption becomes difficult. Yet, artists continue to do their jobs.

Jennifer Hudson in 'Hairspray Live'
Earlier this week, like millions of other viewers, I watched the NBC broadcast of Hairspray Live. because of the night's pouring rain, and the general sense of dread in real life, I at first resisted the charms of the innocuous musical based on John Water's most lighthearted and successful film that blends fighting racism with a local dance show. The hit musical's TV version included some amazing talents, and some awkwardly staged moments as well.

But what sold it all for many was Motormouth Maybelle's soulful anthem, sung by Jennifer Hudson. Even cutie-pie actor Garret Clayton couldn't control his tears, visible behind Hudson as she sang,

"There's a dream, yeah, in the future
There's a struggle that we have yet to win.
Use that pride in our hearts to lift us up to tomorrow
'Cause just to sit still would be a sin."

Can a musical combat the vicious racism so widespread in America? Does a show set 50 years ago remain relevant to our modern times? Will it change anything, effect opinions and viewers' basic sense of human decency? After eight years of progress with the Obama administration, do we really have to go backwards again? Or will we rise up and stop this impending nightmare?

I don't know. I haven't gone outside to check. It's still pouring rain.


  1. I'm not rushing to read any classic dystopian novels, but over the past year I've been reading some of the gay classics that I bought over the years but which have been gathering dust on my shelves. I just finished Isherwood's THE BERLIN STORIES. When I pulled it off the shelf, I didn't think (consciously) about why I chose that particular book at this time, but the subject matter was more timely than I had anticipated.

  2. Thanks for expressing your thoughts so eloquently, Jim. I agree with every word.