February 18th, 2011 / 1:05 am

When I was a painter

“When I was a painter” is a Breeders song, and it is also the title of this, though this is less about when I was a painter than “how I became a writer,” quoted because just saying it aloud inside my muggy mouth makes me somewhat nauseous and sorry for this readership, whose patience towards personal essays is confounding. See? I just used a big word.

When I was a painter I painted scenes across the street, a kind of pedestrian voyeurism without any boners; just simple things like a street lamp’s effect on a wall; the inadvertent faint line of a curb; or how shadows are never dark, just comprised of shapes of darker light. I had paint splotches all over my jeans like Basquiat, though only he got laid.

When I was a painter I looked at Pierre Bonnard, Edouord Vuillard, and Giorgio Morandi. They were all sensitive men, perhaps “fags” in today’s world — fags with wives, OCD tendencies, and a slow silent life somewhere in Europe. I went to Europe once. The food was okay, the weather was bad. Painting is beautiful because there is no talking, only looking, and looking again.

How I became a writer was I failed at painting. I stopped being interested by it, and that is failure. I got too arrogant. I sold a bunch of paintings at a gallery, quit my job and lived off of grapes and sandwiches for two years. Trouble was I stopped looking and began loving everything I did too much. I became obsessed by who I thought I was. I was simply young, and now when I see young people who think similarly, I think it’s sweet. When everyone is a genius, it makes that word gross. I can’t wait for young people to get old, and for old people to die.

I am not a writer, because a security guard who cooks nice meals at dinner is not a chef. He might make his wife very happy, but he is not a chef. I am not a writer in the same way a girl who gets called a whore isn’t really a whore. What people say, and what people do, and what people say about what people do, it’s like playing scrabble with a dictionary — fucking stupid. A writer is someone who writes at least five hours a day, every day, and pays most of his bills by writing. Argue with me if you want. The thing about this laptop is I can make it sleep.

That’s not true. Someone who writes awfully for GQ or People and gets a salary isn’t a ‘real’ writer, the way Frank Kafka or Joe Conrad were ‘real’ writers — so basically, ‘real’ is code for broke and uneducated. But what is education? I’ve seen the way Harvard MBAs or Wasp ladies behave towards waitresses, and let me tell you: they are uneducated. I’ve also seen old Chinese ladies shoot out snot from one nose by plugging up the other. I’ve seen many things, but James Taylor already wrote that song.

My mother always told me “class is how you treat people,” and boy, did she treat my Dad without class; then again, Dad’s a dick. This is how I grew up. Classy mom, dick Dad, Metallica, and a year’s allowance worth of porn under my mattress. I felt more than a pea, trust me. I almost felt love.

That’s not true. It wasn’t love, just dopamine going off in my head while I ejaculated, which is like God’s little grand joke on us, that we are still plans in pencil in his spiral notebook, that all it takes is an asteroid or quick slice through an artery to end us. But I think we know this. This terrifies us, and that is, ironically, why we made him up.

Which brings us to how I became a writer. I was in a cubicle. Copy machines were conspiring against me, making repetitive sounds like two numb people fucking. Everyone carried an extra twenty pounds of lard on their body, adding more calories through their least obscene orifice. I had twenty minutes between emails, and it suddenly occurred to me — like a cancerous cyst you once hoped was a zit — that this was all we were promised. Subway five dollar foot longs, bad pop music, and maybe a fresh murder once a week, inside a tv, the blond reporter wearing leather gloves because it’s freezing outside. And I imagine missing children in that weather, how they are the ones who should be writing memoirs, but alas, there is no agent in dead.

So I made up stories but they weren’t really made up, because someone named Tim or Susan really existed in Ohio or Maine or Tokyo, and he or she did actually drink coffee in the morning, and they did have a cat, and someone did die, and someone did fuck, and someone did sleep in a car using a bag of Doritos as a pillow, left it unopened to keep it inflated for the next evening. Maybe not in that order, and maybe not exactly that way, but the details — like the leaves of a tree a painter paints — became unimportant. Unimportance is art’s best friend.

When I was a painter I tried to paint the woman I loved, but her face was too good and I was too bad at it, so I just took a picture with my cornea and shutter eyelids and looked at it at night while she was somewhere else, at a party discovering vodka’s effect on her judgement, and some bro finger’s effect inside her. But I just imagined that, to make me a little sadder.

They say we are neurologically addicted to the biochemistry in our brain, meaning if you have low serotonin or dopamine, your chemical-brain tells your personality-brain to maintain the way you’re feeling, that low dose, in order to continue whatever supplemental cocktail in your head that your head is currently addicted to. I’m addicted to sad. That is why I never smile, except when alcoholics sing.


  1. Faith

      I like this, I love this.

  2. ana

      i love this

  3. alex crowley

      for someone who ain’t no writer, that sure is some good writin’

  4. deadgod

      The way you say it, art betrays its best friend.

  5. curt

      i’m about to bookmark this so i can read it again more easily.

  6. Sean

      Uh wow. And you hate me saying wow (just reading tone now). But you would hate if I filter wow. The main point it is friday and if I die without eating lunch with Jimmy Chen that will not be a life or a lunch.

  7. math


  8. Amber

      Love this love this.