A Brief History of Who I Am

Self-portrait by the author

Last week, in my post A Brief History of Who I’m Not, I explained the history of my spectrum of noms de plume from fluorescence to brown. But, of course, the name is not the thing. It’s just a noise.

I’m the thing. That is, I have a persistent delusion of being a specific entity and that’s close enough for our purposes today. Whether I literally am my identity or instead my identity is a byproduct of me is not a student loan I’m willing to take out.

My body is this puppet I cart around, pointing it at stuff and flapping its pieces to manipulate the environment or transmit and receive information. It is Caucasoid, male, and suffers from no gross defects.

When I’d only been riding around in my body for five years, it occurred to me in the rain outside the grocery store holding my mom’s hand that human behaviour described in an abstracted way could seem quite alien. That is, the most familiar activities could become bizarre with only a slight reframing. I’m not sure why I had this revelation outside the grocery store. I might have been thinking about the mechanics of eating, and maybe the cherry on top was coming to water water falling out of the sky.

I’ll remember that forever. The smell of the rain washing away the smell of the grocer. His name was Harold. He smelled like fresh-baked bagels and sweat. And as I walked out of his store I grokked how weird the world was.

Strapped into the car, watching the windshield wipers beat back and forth, I decided that I would try to think of all the odd little things people do and obscure their real context, as if I were describing extra-terrestrials. I would write all of the things into a big notebook using adult-style connected writing, and at the end of the book the reader would be shocked to learn that I’d been talking about humans all along. Bam!

I had no idea what science-fiction was, except in the fantasy sense of the space operas popular at the time. I hadn’t yet started pulling books of my father’s shelf chocked with reprints from golden era pulps. Bedtime stories from the likes of Dr. Seuss and Richard Scarry seldom have significant plot twists or make use of unreliable narrators.

So I don’t know where I got the idea that stories could be tricks, but I know I liked it. Because of it I can never forget old Harold and the rain that day. They’ve become a glimpse of being five years old I get to keep. It’s funny how epiphanies can fix moments that way, like the flash of a camera.

This is the second section of the telling. In the first part I was five years old and in the second part that guy is five years old, making for a total of ten. When I was ten years old I took the books from my father’s shelves, one by one. Book-club anthologies in hardcover with blank fronts and undecorated spines. Collections of stories and novellas grouped by year, without introduction or commentary.

One of the first stories I read described the turmoil surrounding the capture and imprisonment of an offworlder by hideous, inhuman aliens. It was implied that the offworlder was a human being until the moment it escaped its tower-prison by simply flying away, much to the captors’ — and readers’ — surprise.

I’m sorry to say I don’t remember the author, though I do remember the smell of the yellowing page that night, the book on my pillow, up past my bedtime. I was very impressed at how the reader’s natural assumptions were the engine that powered the twist. Simple and brilliant!

That was the night I got hooked on written science-fiction.

(Also the night I learned to try to see stories through other people’s eyes, q.v. Flying with Caesar.)

Now, if this were a dewy-eyed docudrama retrospective on my life the musical score would rumble up at this point with something majestic and timeless to suggest that I had been started irrevocably down a path that led with poetic certainty toward the scene at the end of the film where it all comes together for my just desserts and my work is published by somebody other than a pornographer or I get an award or something.

But the truth is nobody had ever suggested to me that being a professional author was a viable career choice, and I didn’t think about it much. Everybody was telling me I was going to be a painter, and that seemed fine. I spent hundreds of hours of my childhood training and preparing to be a painter. I apprenticed and took classes and practiced and studied and read and drew. The money other kids spent on cigarettes and condoms I spent on tubes from Winsor & Newton: alizarin, cerulean, cadmium, umber.

The fact is, most people who put as much energy into painting as I have are much better painters that I ever turned out to be.

I remember helping a senior student clear out his studio space at art school. He was an abrasive redhead with few friends. Dunny was his name. I used to talk to him sometimes because nobody else ever did. While he monologued on the subject of his various scorns he began dismantling a very tall canvas with some violence. I was shocked, because the painting was a study of two figures in oils that was better than my best. “What are you doing. Dunny?”

“It’s shit. It never worked out.”

“I think it’s pretty good.”

“Maybe time will refine your tastes.”

“Just seems like a waste of canvas, is all.”

He shoved the roll of heavy fabric at me. “Take it away, kid.”

I did. I took it to my garage and unrolled it, turning it over to present myself with the unpainted side. I listened to loud music and attacked the thing with six colours of housepaint and a dangerously pointed sense of zeal. What I ended with was a large horizontal composition of an abstraction based on a seed pod, and probably the best painting I had ever been responsible for.

I hung it over my bed. And when I moved to Montréal I dragged it with me and hung it over that bed, too.

And when things turned stupid there with my drug-crazed Gypsy nymphomaniac room-mate, I had to move away quickly so I yanked the thing down and, for the first time in a long time, was confronted by Dunny’s figures on the rear side of the canvas. My shoulders slumped. Even scratched and coated in dust, Dunny’s garbage was a more striking image than my beloved masterpiece.

I rolled the damn thing up and put it away forever.

I wrote some plays. They were not good plays. But they were politely received. I made some short films and sent them to festivals. They never did generate much buzz even though one of them once won a minor award in the United States. I was not able to make it out in person to receive it, but a nice man mailed it to me and so now it gathers dust in my closet.

(Why do people go on wanting to create things? I should stop. I’d save money. I’d save anxiety. I’d have more time to devote to refinishing wooden surfaces around the home and mowing the lawn.)

I became a professional commercial artist, which efficiently drained away all remaining desire to create art. This is exactly what one of my mentors had warned me about: sell an inch and you’ll find yourself indentured to miles. If you bend your craft to prostitution, you’ll have nothing left for yourself. Your only available satisfaction will be payment.

I didn’t used to believe that, but I do now. That’s why when people say, “It must be wonderful to have a job so similar to your interests!” I just nod politely. I don’t want to be a complainer. I think it’s sweet for non-creative people to imagine that for someone like me the opportunity to debase myself in a related field is a reasonable consolation prize.

I even took a run at writing for money, but I quickly backed out. I realized that if I continued I’d be taking every artform I loved and churning it through a wringer until I had nothing left that remained untainted. The desire to exploit myself for pennies would occlude all other passion, leaving me with an empty husk of a hobby no longer capable of taking me where it once did.

If I kept on like that, there’d be nothing for me to do but give up and watch television.

But then a third thing happened to me. I was six times five years old, and submitting random drivel to the Internet for larfs as so many of us do to pass the time between personal crises, going to work and falling asleep. I wrote about Darth Vader as a lark, and when the last chapter I came I turned a good trick: instead of pure satire the narrative turned heartfelt. Over the next few weeks I received thousands of messages from people living all over the world telling me I’d made their day notable by forcing them to cry over a pulp villain.

I’m not sure I’d ever felt so nice before — certainly not about something I’d made.

That’s why I’m still at this: because of those responses. That’s why I couldn’t give a wet slap whether Dunny’s already written a better book on the other side of mine, or whether anyone really wants to pay me. Ultimately, writing science-fiction is the only game I’m still in for the satisfaction. Everything is just bill paying and hand-waving. Everything else is a seventh inning stretch.

I’m still five inside.

We just left Harold’s grocery, and it’s raining. My brain just thrilled at the cognitive dissonance of considering people to be familiar and strange at the same time, and that giddy feeling of purposeful disconnect is staying with me as we drive home in my mom’s wood-paneled stationwagon. I know that grown ups read books with no pictures in them, so that’s the kind I know I have to make, so the pictures don’t give away the ending by mistake.

A good story can be about what’s not said, like the negative space in a painting.

It doesn’t really matter what I’m called, what I do is make stories happen by telling and not telling certain parts. I try to make the elements balance, like a composition. I try to make the people warm and stupid and great, like real mammals. I labour over the letters so now and again one of you out there can get a little high from riding a wave of designed cognitive dissonance.

Because I enjoyed the feeling so, and my mom taught me to share.

About Cheeseburger Brown

Cheeseburger Brown is a Canadian science-fiction storytelling wallah.

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