A Simplicity Trapped in a Complex Mind

“That’s David Hauser,” my friend Paul responded when I asked about the guy who sat in the corner of the liquor store, the one who appeared to have full-fledged conversations with himself. “He’s crazy, an absolute loon. Went crazy about a year ago. People say he got so smart that he just snapped one day.” Paul snapped his fingers. “Like that!” he said.

I frequented The Family Liquor Store for just this reason: I loved anomalies, and I learned that The Family Liquor Store was a veritable breeding ground for them. In the sheltered life I lived, I knew little to nothing of anomalies. I knew that some people succeeded and others failed, but the failures in Dad’s inner circle were a rung or two lower. I knew nothing of the depths of failure and despair that I would encounter in the liquor store owned by my friend Paul’s parents, where Paul also worked.

Even while immersed in that world of despair, I encountered pride, coping mechanisms, and lies. A customer named John informed me that he once played against Wayne Gretzky in a minor league hockey match, Jay informed me of the time he screamed “Go to Hell JFK!” to the man’s face, and Ronny told me of the various strength contests he won. The fact that I flirted with believing any aspects of these tales informed those in The Family Liquor Store that I was almost as laughable as the fools that told them.

“Why would they lie about things like that?” I asked to top off the joke.

“Wouldn’t you?” they asked when they reached a break in their laughter. “If you lived the life they have.”

The unspoken punchline to this ongoing joke was that I might be more lacking in street smarts than any person they had ever met. The answer to the question that was never asked regarding my standing in their world was that a thorough understanding of their world could be said to be on par with any intellectual study of the great men of the book smarts world, in that they both involve a basic understanding of human nature.

“You see these guys here,” Paul’s father whispered to me on a previous day at The Family Liquor Store, gesturing out to its patrons. “I could introduce you to these men, one by one, and you’d hear varying stories of success and failure, but the one thing you’ll hear in almost every case is the story about how a woman put them down. They all fell for the wrong woman.”

Knowing how this line would stick with me, I turned back to Paul’s father while still in the moment.

“What’s the wrong woman?” I asked. “And what did those women do to these guys?”

“It varies,” he said. “You can’t know. All you can know is that you don’t know, because you’ll be all starry-eyed in the moment. Bring them home to meet your dad, your grandma, and all your friends, and you listen to what they say.”

In the life I spent following that advice, I met a number of fussy guys. Some wouldn’t even look at a woman below an eight, on the relative scale of physical appearance. Others looked for excessive class, intelligence, strength and weakness, and still others were in a perpetual, perhaps unconscious, search for their ma. For me, it’s always been about sanity. I’ve date some beautiful women throughout my life and some strong women who could school me in intelligence. Most of the women I decided to date brought that sassy element I so enjoy, but it’s always came back to the FrootLoopery index for me. I had an inordinate attraction to the mama-that-could-bring-the-drama for much of my life, but when those ultimatums of increased involvement arrived that sage advice from Paul’s father would weaved its way into my calculations. I did not want to end up in an incarnation of my personal visage of hell, otherwise known as The Family Liquor Store, where it appeared a wide variety of bitter, lost souls entered by the droves, but none escaped.

For all of the questions I asked in The Family Liquor Store, there was one question that I dare not ask: Why would a normal family, with normal kids, want to open a liquor store on the corners of failure and despair? I would not ask this question, even as a young man with an insufferable amount of curiosity, because I knew that the answers I received would reveal some uncomfortable truths about the one that answered. One answer I did receive, over time, and in a roundabout way: Surrounding one’s self by failure and despair does make one feel better about our standing in the world by comparison.

“How does one become so smart that they go crazy?” I asked Paul, still staring at David Hauser, the man who was still discussing things with himself

“I don’t know,” Paul said. “They say he had a fantastic job, prestige, and boatloads of money, but he got fired one day, and no one knows why. His wife divorced him when he couldn’t find other work, and he ended up sitting in the corner over there, talking to himself for hours on end, and drinking on his brew.”

Among the possibilities he listed was the idea that a woman might have led to David’s fall. I latched onto that possibility, because it suggested Paul’s father was right. I was satisfied with the answer, but Paul and those who informed him wouldn’t let the too-smart angle go in regard to David Hauser’s condition. They declared that was the, “The nut of it all.”

Speaking to oneself was a common practice of The Family Store patronage. Those who didn’t do so, in fact, stood out. The interesting and unique thing that separated David Hauser from the pack was that he was a good listener in those one-sided conversations, a characteristic that made him an anomaly in a world of anomalies. There were times when David looked to the speaker whom no one else could see, but he reserved those shared glances with the speaker for the introductory portion of the speaker’s conversation. When the purported speaker’s dialogue progressed, David Hauser’s gaze then took on a diagonal slant, and it morphed into an outward glance, followed by an inward one that suggested he was contemplating what the other was saying. At times, David Hauser and the purported speaker said nothing at all.

Prior to David Hauser, I assumed that people who speak to themselves do so to fill a void. In a world of people with no listening skills, most intangible friends are excellent listeners. David Hauser filled that void, but he and his companion created other voids, what some might call seven-second lulls. At times, the lulls in those conversations ended with active-listening prompts on David’s part. This display suggested that the purported speaker ended the lull, and David’s listening prompts encouraged the speaker to continue. At other times, David stopped speaking abruptly, as if someone had interrupted him. Those elements deepened my already deep fascination with David Hauser. I knew the abuse I took for this would be brutal, but I couldn’t take it anymore. I had to know what this guy was saying.

“I have to know what he’s saying,” I told Paul.

I went on to inform Paul that my curiosity was based on comedic intrigue, but that was a ruse to cover for the fact that my need to know what David Hauser was saying grew into a full-blown obsession to understand something about humanity, something I didn’t think I could learn from my otherwise sheltered life of books. I needed to know if a person as incapacitated, as David Hauser appeared to be, speaks to himself to sort through internal difficulties, and if such an individual recognizes it for what it was on some level, or believe they are talking with someone else.

“For God’s sake,” Paul said. “Why?”

I’m don’t recall what I said at that point, but I know it was an attempt to defuse the situation, so Paul wouldn’t have material on me later, when it came time to mock me for my odd curiosity. I think I said, “I don’t know, I just do.”

I didn’t know what would’ve satisfied my curiosity. I didn’t know if I was searching for listening prompts or seeking the particular words that David Hauser would use to answer my questions. Is there a word that can inform another that a person genuinely believes another person is there? Is there a word, or series of words, that will inform an observer that a person has manifested another person to satisfy a psychological need? The latter was so far beyond my comprehension that I didn’t want to spend too much time thinking about it, but I figured David’s mannerisms, his tone, and the context of his active-listening prompts would somehow form a conclusion for me.

“Be careful,” Paul said.

The two words slipped out as if Paul was repeating a warning he received when he considered further investigation, and he focused his attention on me and said, “Be careful” again.

I was willing to accept these words of caution on the face of what they implied, at first, but my curiosity got the best of me.

“Why?” I asked.

“I don’t know,” he said. “What if he says something so intellectual that it gets trapped in your brain and you go insane trying to figure it out?”

“Could that happen?”

“How does a guy go insane by being too smart?”

Perhaps Paul was messing with me and my obsession kept me from seeing the joke, but it was just as probable that he believed it. We were both avid fans of the horror genre, and we were both irrational teenagers who still believed in various superstitions, black magic, curses, elements of dark art, and the supernatural. Our minds were just starting to grasp the complex, inner workings of the adult, real world, but we were still young enough to consider the childlike belief in the possibilities of how reality occurring under an altogether different premise.

Long story short, Paul’s attempts to warn me, followed by his questions, did set me back, and I did try to avoid the subject of David Hauser for a spell. I was not what one would call an intellectual young man. My curiosity was insatiable, and I was an observant sort, but tackling highbrow intellectual theory or highbrow literature was beyond me. I was ill equipped for that, ill-equipped, naïve, and vulnerable to the idea that a thought, like a corruptible woman bent on destroying, could leave a man incapacitated to a point that they frequent a low-rent liquor store for the rest of their days and speak to non-existent people.

I thought of the idea of an intellectual peak in the brief moment that followed Paul’s warning. It seemed like one of those foolish, rhetorical questions I ask that results in ridicule, but I found the question fascinating. If there was an intellectual peak, I figured that hadn’t even come close to mine at that point in my life, but I thought that I should work through the dynamics of it in the event that I ever brushed against that border. Will a person know when they’ve arrived at an intellectual peak? I wondered. Is there a maximum capacity one should be wary of crossing? If they do cross it, do they risk injury, similar to athletes who push themselves beyond the actual limits of their physical ability? I thought of a pole-vaulter, sticking a pole in the ground, attempting a jump he should have reconsidered and the resultant physical injuries that could follow.

When I put those irrational fears aside, other irrational fears replaced those, as I walked over to David Hauser. Paul’s “Be careful” played in my head, along with the realization that prior to building the courage to step near David Hauser my fear of him was speculative in nature. It dawned on me that all I did was brave my fears of an unknown quantity, I had no idea how I would deal with whatever reality lay ahead. His volume lowered a bit, as I neared his sphere of influence. I considered that a coincidence and I progressed, pretending to look at something outside the window behind him. As I neared closer, his volume dropped even more. I didn’t that was a coincidence, but I wasn’t sure. I wondered if he was trying to prevent me from hearing him.

Whatever the case, I couldn’t hear what he was saying, and I was more than a little relieved about that. I felt encouraged by the fact that I had neared him, even though I was afraid. I was wary of getting too close, because I feared the idea of having his overwhelming theories implanted in my brain. I assumed such an implantation might be equivalent to an alien putting a finger on a human head and introducing thoughts so far beyond that brain’s capacity that it could cause the victim to start shaking and drooling, like that kid in The Shining. I considered it plausible that I could wake in a straitjacket with that theory rattling around in my head, searching for answers, until I ended up screaming for a nurse to come in and provide me some relief in the form of unhealthy doses of chlorpromazine to release the pressure in my head.

I later learned that David Hauser achieved a doctorate in some subject, earned from some northeastern Ivy League school. That fact placed him so far above those trapped in this incarnation of hell, known as The Family Liquor Store, that I figured everyone involved needed a way to deal with his story, and everyone did love the story.

I wasn’t there when David Hauser told the story of what happened to him, so I don’t have primary source information of his fall from grace. The secondhand story of this once prominent man of such unimaginable abilities falling to a level of despair and failure was on the tip of the tongue of everyone that heard it. “Like that!” they said, with a snap of their fingers to punctuate the description. Bubbling beneath that surface fascination were unspoken fears, confusion, and concern that if it could happen to a guy “Like that!” it could happen to any of us. In place of traveling through a complex maze of theories and research findings to find the truth, there was an answer. No one knew who came up with it first, and no one questioned if that person knew what they were talking about. We just needed an answer, a coping mechanism.

The fact was that no one knew the undisputed truth of what really happened to David Hauser. We knew some truths, the ones he purportedly revealed, but he didn’t give us an answer, because he likely didn’t have one. My guess was that even if we could’ve convinced David Hauser to sit down in a clinical setting or create some sort of climate that would assure him that no one would use his answers to satisfy a perverse curiosity, we still wouldn’t get answers out of him, because he didn’t have any to offer.

The man who spent most of his life answering the most difficult questions anyone could throw at him reached a block, a wall, or some obstacle that prevented him from finding the one answer that could prove beneficial to his continued existence. His solution, therefore, was to talk it out with a certain, special no one for answers.

That led me to believe that the reason his volume dropped as I neared was a mixture of pain and embarrassment. If David Hauser’s mind was as complex as those in The Family Liquor Store suggested, and it was stuck on a question repeating in his head, to the point of needing to manifest another presence to help him work through it, how embarrassing would it be for such a man to have an eavesdropping teenager, that knew little to nothing about the world, find that answer for him?

I did have an answer for what happened to David Hauser, we all did, but I’m quite sure our answer didn’t come anywhere close to solving the actual question of how a man could fall so far. I’m quite sure it was nothing more than a comfortable alternative developed by us, for us, to try to resolve the complexities of such an intricate question that could’ve driven us insane “Like that!” if we tried to figure it out and it trapped itself in our brain.

If you enjoyed this piece, you might enjoy the other members of the seven strong:

The Thief’s Mentality

He Used to Have a Mohawk

That’s Me In the Corner

You Don’t Bring me Flowers Anymore!

… And Then There’s Todd

When Geese Attack!

How to Succeed in Writing III: Are you Intelligent Enough to Write a Novel?

I write one page of masterpiece to ninety-one pages of (poor fiction),” –Hemingway confided to F. Scott Fitzgerald in 1934. “I try to put the (poor fiction) in the wastebasket.”

The key to writing great fiction is streamlining your story. Cut the fat! Some of the greatest authors of all time have admitted that the best additions they made to their novel were the parts they deleted. Somewhere along the line, in their writing career, they achieved objectivity. Somewhere along the line, they arrived at the idea that not all of their words were golden. Somewhere along the line, they realized that some of their words, sentences, paragraphs, and even some of their chapters were quite simply self-indulgent, wastebasket material. These self-indulgent portions, or the “ninety-one pages of (poor fiction),” of any novel are usually found in the asides.

There are asides, and then there are asides. Some asides are what we enjoy in a novel. Some provide setting, pace, and drama. Some also build suspense by taking us away from the train barreling down on the main character to form a cliff hanger. Some fortify the characteristics of a character, and kill a novel. Most asides are unnecessary in the grand scheme of things. As anyone who has read a novel can attest, most novels could be written in forty pages, but that’s a short story, and short stories don’t sell as well as novels. They don’t sell as well, because readers want involvement. Readers don’t fall in love with snapshot stories. They want a world. They not only want to know the humans that they are reading about, they want to be involved with them. They want to see them breathe, they want to hear them talk to an employee at a Kwik Shop, and they want to feel the steps these characters take from place to place. They want to know these people, so when something happens to them, they can care about them. They want to know the minutiae of the human they’re reading about, but they don’t want to get so caught up in the minutiae that they’re taken off pace, and they don’t want to read a self-absorbed writer who thinks it’s all about them. Cut the fat! Get to the point already!

“I’ve met a number of intelligent people throughout my life, and I’ve met a number of people I consider brilliant. I’ve met very few that were able to combine the two.” –Unknown.

One such aside involved the author trying to prove how intelligent they are. The desire to be perceived as intelligent is a strong, driving force in all of us. How many stupid and overly analytical things do we say in one day to try to get one person to think that we’re not a total idiot? This desire to prove intelligence is right up there with the drive to be perceived as beautiful and likeable. It’s right up there with the desire to be seen as strong, athletic, independent, and mechanically inclined. We spend our whole lives trying to impress people. Even those who say that they don’t care what others think are trying to impress us with the fact that they don’t care.

In my first era of writing, I wrote a lot of these self-indulgent asides that contributed little to the story. I was a new student to the world of politics, and I was anxious to prove to the world that I was one smart cookie. I also wanted to show that half of the world that disagreed with my politics how wrong they were. So, I put my main character through an incident, and he came out of it enlightened by a political philosophy that agreed with mine. In various other pieces, I wanted to inform the world of all of this great underground music I was experiencing. My thought process at the time was: “Hey, if Stephen King can get away with telling us about tired rockers that we’ve all heard a thousand times. Why can’t I tell a few readers about a group they’ve never heard before?” Copy the masters right? I wanted the world to know both sides of my brain in the same artistic piece. After taking a step back, I reread the novel, and I achieved enough objectivity to realize that it was all a big ball of mess.

If I was going to clean this mess up and start writing decent stories, I was going to have to divide my desires up. I was going to have to cut the fat. I was going to have to discipline myself to the creed that should be recited nightly by all aspiring storytellers: Story is sacred. I was going to have to learn to channel my desire to be perceived as smart into political and philosophical blogs. I was going to have to channel my desires to have people listen to my “discovered” music into Amazon.com reviews, and my stories, my novels, and my short stories would be left pure, untarnished stories with no agendas. By dividing these desires up, I would be able to proselytize on the role of the Puggle in our society today, and the absolute beauty of Mr. Bungle’s music, without damaging my stories or boring the readers of my stories. I learned the principle the esteemed rock band Offspring tried to teach the world when they sang: “You gotta keep ‘em separated.”

There’s one writer, he-who-must-not-be-named, who never learned this principle. This author presumably got tired of being viewed as nothing more than a storyteller. This author knew he was intelligent, and all of his friends and family knew he was intelligent, but the world didn’t know. The world only knew that he was a gifted storyteller, and they proved this by purchasing his books by the millions, but they didn’t know that he was so much more. This author achieved as much in the industry, if not more, as any other writer alive or dead (It’s Not King!), but he remained unsatisfied with that status. He needed the world to know that he wasn’t just a master of fiction. He needed the world to know he was as intelligent as he was brilliant, and he wrote the book that he hoped would prove it. It resulted in him ticking off 50% of his audience. 50% of his audience disagreed with him, and his politics, and they (we!) vowed to never read another one of his novels again. This is the risk you run when you seek to be perceived as intelligent and brilliant in the same work.

thomas-mannBut politics makes for such great filler, and to quote the great Thomas Mann: “Everything is political.” Well, there’s politics, and then there’s politics. If you’re one of those who doesn’t know the difference, and you don’t think your politics is politics, you should probably be writing something political. If you’re one of those who wants to write politics into your novel simply because it makes for such great filler, however, then you should try to avoid the self-indulgent conceit that ticks off that half of the population that disagrees with your politics. You’ll anger some with this, you’ll bore others, and the rest of us won’t care that you think it’s vital that your main character expresses something in some way that validates your way of thinking. We will just think it’s boring proselytizing from an insecure writer who needs validation from their peers. Stick to the story, we will scream, as we skip those passages or put your book down to never read anything you’ve ever written again.

You will need to be somewhat intelligent though. You’ll need enough to know your punctuation and grammar rules, you will need to know when and where to make paragraph breaks, and you will need to know how to edit your story for pace, but these aspects of storytelling can be learned.

“I am not adept at using punctuation and/or grammar in general…” A caller to a radio show once informed author Clive Barker. She said that she enjoyed writing, but it was the mechanics of writing that prevented her from delving into it whole hog. “Are you a clever story teller?” Clive asked her. “Do you enjoy telling stories, and do you entertain your friends with your tales?” The woman said yes to all of the above. “Well, you can learn the mechanics, and I strongly encourage you to do so, but you cannot learn the art of storytelling. This ability to tell a story is, largely, a gift. Either you have it or you don’t.”

Be brilliant first, in other words, and if you can achieve brilliance, you can learn the rest. You can gain the intelligence necessary to get a thumbs up from a publisher, an agent, and eventually a reader, but you cannot learn brilliance. You cannot gain artistic creativity, and it’s hard enough to prove artistic brilliance. Why would you want to further burden yourself by going overboard in trying to also prove intelligence, and thus be everything to all people?

Let the people see how brilliant you are first! Gain a following. Once you have achieved that pied piper Wildeplateau, you can then attend to the self-indulgent effort of proving your intelligence. I don’t understand why that is so important to those who achieve artistic brilliance, but if I could understand their mindset better, I would probably be one of them. The preferred method of achieving all of your goals is to ‘keep ‘em separated’, but there are always going to be some who need to prove their intelligence and brilliance in the same Great American Novel. Those people are going to say Stephen King is a much better example to follow to the best-seller list than I am, and he achieved his plateau with a little bit of this and a little bit of that sprinkled in his prose. The question you have to ask yourself is, is he the rule or the exception to the rule? If Stephen King’s model is your preferred model, and these political and music parts are so germane, so golden, and so uniquely special to your story, keep them in. As Oscar Wilde once said, “You might as well be yourself, everyone else is taken.”