Making Down With Oceania — “An Evening with Philip Glass”

Philip Glass

A few years ago (actually, it must be eight. I’ll process that fact later), I went with a friend to see the world premier of a new piece by the composer Philip Glass. Not only was Glass in attendance, but he did a talk before the show and we had the great privilege of attending both. Someone from the audience asked Glass a great question about the difference between composing classical pieces versus composing for film scores, since Glass is accomplished in both arenas. Glass’s response was awesome, and it has always stuck with me. He said, “the film score people are a lot more fun to hang out with.” He elaborated that he believed film composers were more free to make music for the joy of it and weren’t caught up in the academic anxieties of being thought of as ‘prestigious’ musicians. Glass’s comments reminded me of one of my favorite stories about the great English composer Ralph Vaughan Williams, who, when sitting in the front row listening to someone drone on about the glorious expression of human genius in one of his pieces, was overheard grumbling loudly, “can’t a fellow just write a tune?

Ralph Vaughan Williams

I try and carry the spirit of these stories with me when I’m writing. I spent 14 years in academic political science and philosophy, where the concern with prestige would nauseate the average narcissist. My desire to leave that world to write was based primarily on a desire to be happier in my work. I think our culture probably has an unhealthy attachment to prestige. If you are asked who would you dine with if they could dine with any 3 authors, picking Hemingway, Joyce, and Faulkner makes you sound smart. But I suspect I would have a much better time dining with Gillian Flynn, Tom Clancy, and Veronica Roth.

I want to be as cool a writer as he looks writing.

I would love to be so free-wheeling in following the lighter parts of my heart, but the dark clouds gather frequently. I worry a lot more than I’m proud of that my writings will cause people I know to downward revise their opinion of my intelligence. I want to write lighter fare that’s still smart… but I also want my smart friends to think I’m still keeping up with the smarty-Joneses. When I told people I was a political philosophy professor at parties, I never got the sense that anyone’s thoughts immediately ran to my being a dummy. But if you say, “I write experimental pulp internet fiction,” I don’t know about you but my thoughts run to some guy who works in a video store and lives in his mom’s basement. Especially when you meet most people through your brilliant, highly accomplished wife who is standing next to you for most of these exchanges. Which is why I don’t ever say that to people, but instead just say, “I’m a stay at home dad.” Because if you call me out then, you hate children, the future, and probably America and puppies too.

Not that I’m lying about being a stay at home parent. I do that too, and that has its own impact on my time horizon. And that leads to another fear, the “you spent two years on this book and this is all you produced?” fear. That voice in my head (that I export to others to make it seem like it’s not self-doubt) really pushes me to throw in extra highbrowness in order to try and at least intimidate a few people into thinking the book isn’t bad, just over their head. That’s a crutch. I believe that writing a good story is about telling it well and having something that keeps people connected to the experience of reading it, not about proving that your are the awesome king of the smart Garfunkels.

At the very least, I have this journal. I’ll keep trying to write smart thoughts here so that even if they don’t come off in the novel, I’ll have some record that thinking was happening under the hood.

Until next time.

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