Let’s begin with a portrait of the artist as a young schoolboy. In the early grades of life some assignment comes his way that forces him to write, forces him to marshal his penmanship toward a greater good. I remember in particular getting in trouble one day sometime in the second grade. I was talking in class, daydreaming, something. My punishment was to remain at my desk during recess and to write ten sentences, each containing an action verb. By sentence three I had made a discovery. The task wasn’t easy, exactly. Instead the activity of thinking up those action verbs was pleasurably intense. It felt, paradoxically, both mental and tactile. I handed in my punishment-assignment early, stood there with a new feeling of complexly smug pride, and awaited my praise. To think of it actively, I kicked that detention’s ass.
The pattern repeats itself. New non-punishment-related assignments arrive, and at the end of each is a teacher, ready with a happy grade, a friendly sticker, a tired adult’s smile of appreciation.
Years pass. A call and response is established. The young boy grows increasingly involved with his own cleverness. It’s become what we might call a life project—this cultivation of reward-able cleverness. But then, one day, around the same time he begins to sprout the crunchy, curled hair, he gets ambition. He smells what David Mamet calls in another context “the stench of art.” Now the boy is no longer content to cleverly respond to the assignments thrown his way. His voice may be scratchy, he may be cripplingly shy, but he’s found out he has something to say.
The next step in the boy’s life can go a multitude of directions but it usually includes the purchase of many, many notebooks.
Time passes. At some point the young artist grows self-aware, the enormity of his task now finally recognized. Success, approval—he’s now sure how to get it. Now finally out of school and teacherless, he’s not even sure where to look. The artistic ambition begins to feel like this ever-deepening tunnel into the earth. He’s in so deep that he can’t see out.
But then, one day, a momentary reprieve. An editor sends an email, giving the boy—now a young man—an assignment. The young man slowly discovers a way to move forward, or at least sideways, momentarily freed from the ever-present, complicating stench.
* * *
Over the past five years, my stench-less area of expertise became the alumni profile, that 300- to 1,000-word portrait wherein some graduate of University X overcomes life’s obstacles to attain that elusive post-diploma success. Like most jobs, this one arrived accidentally. I began as a fair weather freelancer because the profiles were easy, didn’t take too much time, and offered me a terribly satisfying feeling whenever I sent out an invoice for something I’d written.
Right from the start I knew this was of course not my true writing. That was already taken up—grandly—with short stories and novels. At this point I’d written a dozen or so stories, was well on my way in my first novel, and was generally feeling energetic and assured. You know the look: young and insufferable. But I didn’t take the job as some besmirchment of my true talent, either. It was more innocent than that. I was young, I needed the money.
However, once my oeuvre of alumni profiles got rather sizeable, I began to worry, as they were exponentially outpacing my published fiction. A couple of years of freelancing had created a conflicted bibliography. I began to mourn the unrealized gains of all those non-fictive words, as if each alumni profile lived only by aborting some nascent short story. It seemed that this was no longer something I did for the money or the fun of it. The alumni profiles and I no longer went on long walks together or shared dessert after dinner; maintaining my relationship with them now took real work. They were needy, clingy. They called me incessantly, wondering where I had been. They began to feel like some sort of Kryptonite—a type of writing broken from the original planet of my ambition and now usable against me.
How does he balance it all?
Barrett Hathcock rocks back, sucks in his cheek. He’s taking a pause from his busy daily schedule of rounds. "Well, I just take it one day at a time, eat right, remember to exercise, and, of course, get plenty of sleep!"
Hathcock, a 2001 graduate of the School of Medicine, has made a name for himself as a pediatric oncologist, taking what could be interpreted as a depressing job and making lemonade out of lemons.
"Those kids are what get me out of bed each morning. Everyday we go in the ring together to kick cancer’s ass."
But all this Kryptonitic pity was separate from the actual composing of the profiles, which combined two latent pleasures: a joy in schmoozing and a joy in word problems. I enjoyed getting out of the house and chatting someone up, and for their own part, my subjects were happy to pose for their de facto complimentary word portraits (which were, let’s be honest, PR copy in journalism drag). In-person interviews were always better than those conducted over the phone, which became a type of prison sentence for the senses. (Cell phones have only made it worse.) You can’t effectively hear the person’s pauses, can’t gauge their boredom, can’t mentally notate a subject’s subtle physical tics of enthusiasm. And with in-person interviews, you get to have a sociable interaction placed inside the workday, a little mini vacation snuck under the cover of Real Work.
When the schmoozing was over there was the word problem of the actual composing, which wasn’t like writing fiction at all. With fiction there is the blankness, soon followed by the banality of whatever you type, and then the ever-present urge to highlight and delete—the inevitable turning against oneself, the critical scorpion tail ever ready to strike. With the alumni profile the writing occurs during the interview, the subtle prodding and guiding of discussion, the rigged spontaneity. What’s left afterward is merely the assemblage. This is actually exhilarating, or if not exhilarating, pleasantly crafty. It’s the closest thing to cooking I’ve come across in writing; the ordering and chopping and mixing is as relaxing and soothing as food prep. It makes me wish every type of writing had that same step of material play.
After graduating magna cum laude from the School of Optometry in 1998, Barrett Hathcock went on to complete an ocular disease residency in Atlanta, Ga. He now resides in Laredo, Texas, where he runs a private practice. On the weekends for fun, he offers free eye care along the border to recently arrived undocumented workers.
"Just because they’re illegal eyes don’t mean they aren’t eyes in need."
The reason that the composition is so puzzle-like is because the alumni profiles never had that much variety. The nut graph was about how attending University X changed my subject’s life forever, the rest of the piece merely an explication of that thesis. Sometimes I would lead with a floating quotation, which either did the thesis-like work mentioned above or was just compelling in some random way. And that’s what I liked about it—the use of quotations could almost be arbitrary. Just get the person talking in the story and then you could backfill all of the crucial nonsense. It also pleasantly relieved me of having to write conventional lead paragraphs, which I tended to flub.
If I sound cynical here, how I really mean to sound is pleased with my own self-taught routine. Compared to writing fiction, which mostly feels like channeling an acid trip without the acid, it was soothing to have something approaching a plan. After a little practice the alumni profiles became mass producible: essentially they were a person’s life story with all the pain and failure and mistakes taken out. Not only did I know where the profile was going—it always ended with their present day success and maybe a hint of what surely successful endeavor they might pursue in the near future—it became selfless in a kind of meditative way. As opposed to the fiction writing, there was no ambition tied up within the writing of the alumni profiles. Their success or failure as polished written pieces didn’t even interest me that much. They were mindless in the best possible sense, and what I began to crave was their meditative stupor, the puzzler’s delight in ordering their components, in putting together another machine of prose in my homegrown factory. Fiction writing, on the contrary, has always been tied to approval, either from some exterior audience or from myself. If the profiles were these little machines of nostalgic meaning, then my fiction was like rare new breeds of flowers; I was never sure of the proper ratio of water and light.
To put it simply: fiction writing was already poisoned by its own importance., too fraught with the potential for failure to even really be that much fun. Sick with desire, rotted through with ambition, fiction became the profile’s dark twin.
* * *
When writing the alumni profiles, I sometimes wondered if I was creating a type of propaganda. Mostly, they said: These are our graduates. Look how well they’re doing. And as such there was never any bad information; no one ever confided in me how they really hated University X and really wished they’d gone to Vanderbilt instead. This lack of candor—this repression—was soothing. It made it easy to conduct interviews since I—aside from not being able to write a coherent lead—am petrified of offending someone with my interview questions. I’ll never be a good journalist because a good journalist needs the bravery to be constructively rude in her questions. Eager-to-please, genteel youths like myself need to stick to making people up.
Though the profiles were obviously not journalism, neither were they strictly PR gas, because the people I wrote about I inevitably ended up liking. There was the dentist who was beyond obsessed with collecting celebrity autographs. The mechanical engineer who dispassionately studied how chemical agents—nerve gas, say—might move through a major American city. The biologist who happened to live in my neighborhood. (After our interview I kept seeing him take his young daughter out for breakfast.) The optometrist who became an optometrist because it sounded reasonable. Like wearing a seatbelt sounds reasonable. What a wonderful way to choose a career! My profiles became little odes to reasonableness.
At the same time they became little models of reasonableness, too. How reasonable to write an alumni profile! How logical to fulfill and editor’s request, to bend your art toward providing someone a service. To answer a question that had been asked. This was the opposite of writing fiction and covered over its shameful secret, which was that fiction answered no need, fulfilled nothing. Fiction required me to create something that no one—no teacher—had assigned. It was a move of pure ego, an expression that raised the question of its own justification, an entirely new hole needing to be filled.
I began to think of these profiles not as journalism and not as PR copy but as personality postcards. I had the urge to title them all “Wish You Were Here,” because everyone I wrote about seemed happy and well-adjusted, relatively speaking. If their life was roiling with hardship, they kindly kept it from my ears. For the good of the university, we engaged in a missive to all their fellow alumni, briefly outlining the view from their end of the graduation rainbow. Because I did realize it was a dream, this postcard we were creating. The picture it contained was cropped by nostalgia.
* * *
The real, deeper problem with my writing could be my own self-consciousness, and here too the alumni profile has played a part. I must admit that at the same time I was writing freelance alumni profiles, I also began writing potted biographies of great writers for an online encyclopedia. These 3,000- to 4,000-word narratives aggregated the pre-existing biographies, streamlined the generally held critical opinions, and made comfortably digestible the aesthetic flux of the 20th century’s masters. Though these biographies were not completely detrimental to my grand project—for instance, I learned some fascinating inside dope on Eudora Welty, who would rearrange her typewritten paragraphs using safety-pins; and I learned about Don DeLillo’s habit of typing out each sentence on a single sheet of paper in order to see it in all its sculptural isolation—all in all I do not recommend that aspiring writers spend much of their time delving into the successful life narrative of their heroes.
Author biographies, like alumni profiles, cast the artist’s success as a formed arc, as a logical outcome of their ambition and drive and choices and friends and environment. There’s not enough doubt in an author’s biography; their greatness, sitting at the end of the article, casts a paralyzing shadow. My potted biographies gave me too much incentive to think about the first line my own great biography: “In the spring of his second year out of graduate school, it never once stopped raining”; “Before it became an anthologized classic, Hathcock’s short story ‘High Cotton’ went through 17 drafts and 44 rejections.” And I’d drive around town answering the questions of Charlie Rose, as if our interview were being televised from my car.
This is what these writing projects do to my head: they make me jump over the actual creation of an artistic work and start to think of its eventual, applause-filled reception. It’s like some witty chess move, jumping from aspiration to appreciation.
And perhaps even further inward: for the aspirant fiction writer, there is not only the narcissistic plague of other people’s success; there’s also the plague of narrative itself, the incessant ordering of a life into cohesive units that build upon one another and reach some final epiphany. For the alumni profile, this climax is always the success of the subject. In a way, the publishing of the profile is its own climax: look how successful you are at this very moment. And as such, these profiles provide good training ground in ginning up some narrative where little actually exists. But this narrative creation, this whirring combinatory device, is deadly when turned upon the factory owner himself. He writes some profiles, gins up some narrative. But then he sees other writers having profiles written about them, about how their life is ordered and meaningful and building excitingly toward some successful climax. Before long, he turns the gin on himself and tries to find the order in his own life, tries to order his own life, tries to press it into the prefabricated molds he’s created for all his other work. And it won’t fit. Again and again I’m confronted by the fact: it doesn’t fit. I am neither moving rapidly toward success nor failing miserably. But in the alumni profile, there is no gray area. Like a sonnet, the conventions of the alumni profile are rigid and perfect.
Of course, there are moments when I realize that this is all some elaborate head game. (I’m either tremendously self-conscious or simply tremendously full of shit.) When I see that my life is not some pat narrative, it becomes clear that this whole project I’ve begun—creating imaginary narratives full of imaginary people—lives on a diet of artificial flavor. The narrative, logical, linear grids I place on the flux of my subjects’ lives are just as false as the grids placed on the lives of great authors, and those grids are just as false as the grids I place on myself, and just as false as the narrative grids within the stories I come up with. From the obsession with and misapplication of narrative comes the realization of narrative’s falsity, the way it bends light in its own demonic way, and how its manipulator can paralyze his own Gorgonoid self. I am no longer safe, now that Narrative Power has been released into my world.
After graduation, Hathcock lived for a while as a merchant fisherman off the coast of Alaska, before finally returning to the land of scholarship where he wrote his dissertation on Herman Melville, entitled The Great White Whale: The Wider Shade of Pale.
"Being out there with all those fish helped me," Hathcock says. "You’ve got to breathe the rot of the ocean to really get what Herman was digging on."
How did you find out about University X? What was it like when you arrived? Has it changed much?
Did you always want to be a physical therapist?
What is your favorite memory from your time at University X?
These questions would always trigger contemplative gazes upward, the relaxed cleaning and adjusting of memory’s glasses that helped recall that happy time back in school. I know that their lives weren’t really that satisfying, and I knew that their time in school couldn’t have been that perfect, but the very act of remembering made it, if not perfect, then vaguely satisfying. The profiles were postcards of people remembering who they thought they were, sent out to someone they might have known back in the day.
If there was one constant in the profiles I wrote during my time—aside from my dopey questions—it was the answer to how they got to their current position, their position of relative success. When asked how they achieved what they’d achieved, they all said the same thing: I have no idea. Sure, there was the genuflecting before University X; there was the lauding of this or that influential mentor. But the overarching meaning of what they had done was that it was random, that they had been at the right place at the right time, that some unforeseeable congruence of education and opportunity had landed them where they were. The most interesting subjects were the ones who didn’t have a career path so much as a career bramble—a mess of options, interviews, and friendly connections, dead-end jobs and blind groping. This unforeseen success, at least for a young writer stuck in the minor genre of the great American alumni profile, was heartening.
But now I have left the alumni profile. I’m taking a sabbatical from the form because, in fine sabbatical fashion, I need to reconsider my fundamental assumptions about art, the world, and my place in between them. I miss the profiles to an extent. I miss the checks in the mail, the freelancer’s contentment, the smugness that comes from taking a skill almost universally belittled—everyone knows how to write, right?—and plying it as a payable trade. I’ve now returned more fully to fiction. I’ve pulled back into the greenhouse of myself to see what delicate breeds I can grow, and if these creations can’t replicate themselves as paychecks or harvest some affection from publishers, then I suppose I can always return to the world of alumni profiles. A move that might, depending on your disposition, be called something like a failure.
However, all I would need to see my good fortune within this creative failure would be for some eager, young writer to come along and help me remember myself, and what I’d done back in the day, and then write that successful, more orderly, more cohesive version of my life, the one worth putting down in ink.
Contributing editor Barrett Hathcock lives in Memphis, TN, where he teaches creative writing at Rhodes College. His most recent fiction appears in [sic] magazine.
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