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Letters to Chicago
we write to escape, we write to embrace
We used to call someone to whom we wrote letters from across an ocean a penpal. Nowadays, they’re simply called digital friends.
For the past few months, I’ve been exchanging letters with writers who inspire me to create or think in a different way.
Writing a letter to someone I’ve never met before allows me to engage in a different kind of writing than I’m used to, a style that is both more colloquial and more intimate than most of the other kind of writing I do (you can see the other letters I’ve written by clicking here).
These "Letters to a Comedian” or no exception.
For this rendition of “Letters,” I’m speaking with, a talented satirist and self-described “full-time stay-at-home dad and lifelong writer at heart who spent the first half of my existence doing white-collar, corporate nonsense instead.”
In the following exchange, Amran and I discuss why we write, what defines good comedy, and whether we write as a form of escape or embrace.
Here’s to cultivating new friendships all across the globe.
I was thinking of what specifically I wanted to write to you about, and perhaps this is as good a start as any. You seem to me, from my VERY limited knowledge of you via your writings / comments on Substack, to be a very happy cynic, or perhaps an optimistic cynic. I'm right there with you – it's hard to take much of life seriously when my primary faith is in the consistent promise of the Absurd – and I wonder if your writing reflects your day-to-day experience, or rather if your writing is reprieve from some other facet of your everyday life.
I've been writing a lot of essays recently, straying away from fiction, in-part because it took me so many years to finish my latest novel, which for me feels like a vestigial limb of a different kind of mind that I am not-exactly-evolving-from-but-certainly-growing-out-of. What that mind is, one obsessed with Knowledge, capital-K, as a capital-T truth, is being replaced by an admittedly postmodernist tendency to minimize everything with irony/sarcasm/humor/wit, but with the recognition that on the other side of the doldrums of nihilistic flirtations there IS meaning to be found on the far side of the deep dark bubbling lake.
So my question, I guess, is what's in your lake? What do you escape from when you enter the writing space, and what do you bring with you from your day-to-day life to stay afloat? It's entirely possible I'm actually writing to an AI chat bot, of course. I can't say I have incontrovertible proof that you, good sir, who I know as Amran and I am pretty sure you live in Chicago and I know, from your writing, certainly refers to the little humans in your home as children ... well I still can't be sure you are in fact a living, breathing human being.
And so I repeat my most humanizing attempt at the question: what do you bring with you from the world of emails into the world of fiction, and what are you most hesitant to peer into when you cross that lake?
Samuél, a sentient creature that at a lot of the time feels alive
First, I can assure you I’m not an AI chat bot, because no rational, sane, logical, reasonable, sensible, or lucid computer-based organism would willingly brave the byzantine financial madhouse that is the United States healthcare system.
That I injured myself in the most clichéd, dad-like fashion imaginable – a trampoline FFS! – should also unequivocally prove I’m an (allegedly) advanced primate, and offer sufficient justification for why I’m just now responding to your letter two months late.
All that said, to answer the sneakily complex and multi-faceted question you’ve posed: I’ll brashly declare myself a “fearless” writer, who infuses the entirety of his lived experience into his work, and who uses the pixelated page to process his joy, anger, frustration, gratitude, disappointment, and other (100% organic) feelings.
Writing, to me, has never been an escape as much as an embrace: I experienced or encountered or learned about [blank], which made me feel [blank] and [blank], and I processed it in the form of [blank] – with the last [blank] typically arriving in the form of merciless satire or unrelenting sarcasm.
I’ve been navigating the world like this from the moment I could jot down semi-coherent sentences, and I’ve been likewise getting reprimanded and chastised for those very same semi-coherent sentences ever since. Sometimes justifiably, of course, but far more often because I either 1) told a “person” in a position of “authority” they were full of shit (or an asshole, or both), or 2) mentioned the obvious, horrible, uncomfortable thing surrounding us, which everybody knows is super bad, but is way too scared to discuss out loud.
Put another way, as a member of a species born mad, writing is how I attempt to stay sane.
And I think, because of my self-declared “fearless” approach, my work resonates with people, even if they don’t agree with every single word I produce. For example, it’s not societally acceptable to call your children psychopaths, but many people, who love their children dearly, and would do anything for them, like me, nonetheless have (daily) moments where they’re like, “Jesus H. Christ my children are goddamned psychopaths!”
I like to believe those people – especially the bona fide parents among them – appreciate my words, because I’m giving voice to their lived experiences. And by using dark humor or scathing satire as my vehicle, I’m granting them permission to laugh and accept ideas that would otherwise be considered faux pas in polite company.
Of course, while I can puff myself up and haughtily declare I’m “fearless” with a keyboard, that isn’t totally true. In my humor and satire writing, I’m always, always, always careful not to cause legitimate offense, or harm, or injury – especially to marginalized or put-upon groups. Ridiculing and lampooning the villains without appearing to endorse their villainy is a tricky tightrope to walk. I’ve (so far) managed to avoid getting in trouble in two ways.
First, I always have my wife – who’s significantly smarter and savvier than me – read any risqué or potentially inflammatory pieces in advance. If she has any doubts, I’ll ask close friends or colleagues to review as well.
Second, I punch “up.” Craven politicians and cynical CEOs and bloodthirsty warmongers and my psychopathic children deserve every ounce of opprobrium I can muster. In fact, I’d be thrilled if they’d subscribed to Field Research.
On the fiction end of the writing spectrum, however, where there are effectively no rules, and the targeted goals include competent craft and compelling storytelling rather than edgy punchlines, I sometimes feel paralyzed by fear.
For instance, my in-progress novel (working title: Leveraged) draws upon my lived experiences, and at times forces me to revisit exceptionally dark moments from my younger days. In creating a character who’s based on me, who’s clinically depressed, and exploring feelings of worthlessness, and grappling with suicidal ideation, how could I not be afraid to mine that territory? How could I not have reservations? Why would I want to remember the miserable times I feel so lucky to have left behind? I’d imagine even the AI chat bot version of me – or my psychopathic children – would be apprehensive about delving into such raw material.
Nonetheless, the goal of the fiction I produce is also to process my lived experiences. And my intention is for my fiction work to tap into those most essential and vulnerable feelings – the ones which make us human. Of course, that’s much harder – and a lot scarier – than lobbing replacement theory jokes.
Anyway, as a classic narcissist, who loves to talk about himself, I’m sure I’ve said too much. So I’ll pause and parry the same question back to you: do you write to escape, or to embrace? And why?
Looking forward to your certain-to-be-sophisticated response.
Amran, a washed, middle-aged dad, who writes (poorly) to stay (debatably) sane
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To answer your question succinctly: I write to escape. I’m a big fan of this Andre Gide quote, which has been the guiding light of my writing life: “One does not discover new lands without consenting to lose sight of the shore for a very long time.”
To answer your question long-windedly:
Perhaps the first time I realized that literature was an escape / at least a portal to another realm was when I was able to lock myself in my very own bedroom and read a book all by myself.
I was probably eight or nine years old. I don’t quite remember, but I know I’d recently acquired my very own bedroom thanks to my parents’ divorce.
It isn’t a sad story, just the story of life (as Vonnegut says: “so it goes”). Once my father moved out and no longer needed his office/bedroom in my mother’s home, me and my twin brother Aaron stopped sleeping in the same room (Aaron is an illustrator who’s now on Substack; he has impeccable comedic taste and wit).
The walls of my bedroom were soon plastered with posters of Michael Jordan and Patrick Ewing and, later, a sultry image of Britney Spears and a gaudy “GOT MILK?” poster showcasing a farmgirl in a small tee shirt and VERY short shorts.
But that’s neither here nor there. The point is, having my own bedroom was the first time I truly felt like I had a chance at being myself and not just a twin. I discovered this via the simple superpower of a good book and a locked door.
One of the first novels I remember reading was Psycho by Robert Bloch, and I remember a) being amazed that I was able to get my hands on such a terrifying book and b) being bowled-over by the possibility of actually feeling something by virtue of words alone.
When you grow up with a sibling who looks much like you and has similar interests, the vast majority of the emotions you experience are shared. This isn’t a bad thing, it simply is what it is. Most of everything I did as a child was either alongside my twin brother, or was in direct defiance of our existential connection. Similarly, whenever I made a choice not to do something with him, it was less a successful attempt at individuation than proof of my essential twinness.
Escaping into the land of literature was one of the first spaces I could call my very own. Conveniently, it was also a simple way of telling people to fuck off without having to actually say it. As a kid, this is why I spent so much time reading The Narnia Series and Harry Potter and Shel Silverstein and Calvin and Hobbes and The Far Side. Reading (and soon writing) became an escape from the Samuél that I was to everybody else. It wasn’t that I didn’t enjoy being a twin brother (he’s the oldest, closest friend I’ve ever known) so much as by venturing into the world of literature I could possess myself as I was in a space I could call my own.
My mother tells me I started writing around that time, and while I don’t remember writing specifically, I do know I kept journals and wrote a book of abstract poems called Funk Backwards as well as its sequel, Funk Backwards II. But did I write those poems from a place of escape or liberation? In my mind, they’re two sides of the same coin. To that extent, I can agree with you, at least in principle, that writing is also a form of embrace, but this sounds vaguely self-aggrandizing to me, or at least spiritual / too-good-to-be-true, because of one simple fact that has colored my writing life: in my experience, writing is fucking hard, and writing-well often feels near impossible.
I struggle with writing every day, not so much when I’m actually in it, which is the dream, but for all the hours around the writing when I’m thinking about how I should write or wish I were writing. If I were to say that I write as an “embrace” it is only insofar as I’m able to embrace those moments when I can escape my exterior world and lock myself in the proverbial room of one’s own.
I am one of those people who believes that writing, when done correctly, helps shed the ego in favor of the communal, which is a thorny idea insofar as of course our ego comes into the writing process, but when I’m true to a narrative or a character it’s because they remind me of something resembling my core.
And I think I’ll leave it at that for now. As usual, these considerations really should be accompanied by a glass of whiskey. Thank you for these missives. It’s a pleasure to get to know somebody from across an ocean via letters, and I can genuinely say I feel like I have a new friend in Chicago (and you in Paris). I’m looking forward to continuing this conversation, so HERE COMES THE REBUTTAL:
You mentioned “being careful not to cause legitimate offense, or harm, or injury—especially to marginalized or put-upon groups” when you write, but to be blunt, this smacks to me of covering your bases via political correctness. I have no doubt that you know some off-colored jokes that would make a lot of people laugh and that would also offend many others…
So my question is, can reasonably good comedy be written from a position that is primarily concerned with not offending? I’m not saying good comedy needs to be offensive, but as someone who is extremely wary of authoritarianism in all of its forms in this era, I’m curious how you reconcile comedy and its creation from a principled position of censorship and/or inoffensiveness.