The Literary Equivalent of a Sex Change(excerpted from the revised and expanded edition of
Pronoia Is the Antidote for Paranoia)
When I was 19, while other man-boys my age were dreaming of becoming doctors and lawyers and rock stars, a curious ambition overtook me: I decided I wanted to be a feminist when I grew up. As I pursued that goal over the years, I devoted many meditations to imagining what it's like to be a woman. While writing my second book, The Televisionary Oracle, I lived part-time inside the psyche of the heroine for five years.
But I have always been perfectly happy to be a heterosexual man. The prospect of dressing in women's clothes, for costume parties or any other reason, has never appealed to me. I'm mildly interested in the stories of those who have decided to change their sex with the intervention of surgery and drugs, but the fantasy of becoming a transgender person has never flitted across my mind's eye for even a nanosecond.
My identity as an author, on the other hand, has not been as clear-cut. I have sometimes felt like a storyteller trapped in the body of a journalist. On other occasions, it's more the reverse. I imagine I'm an essayist stuck inside the persona of a poet, or else maybe a scholar lurking within the form of a wacky visionary.
The confusion doesn't stop there. My heart tells me I'm a mystical seeker who was born to explore spiritual themes, even as my head says I'm an artistic intellectual whose task it is to illuminate the mysteries of concrete reality here on the material plane.
So while I've never dreamed of being a transgender person, I have sometimes fantasized about getting a mythical trans-genre operation -- a procedure that would cure me of the nagging sense that I'm not the writer I'm supposed to be.
My wish was finally fulfilled during the four and a half years I worked on my new book, PRONOIA Is the Antidote for Paranoia. It taught me not to struggle against my contradictions, but rather to celebrate them. It didn't give me the literary equivalent of a sex-change, but rather bestowed on me a poetic license to be the authorial equivalent of a hermaphrodite.
PRONOIA is my third book, but my main claim to fame is the 1400-word weekly report that I syndicate to newspapers and publish on the Web. Here's the complication: This lynchpin of my career takes the form of a horoscope column, which is not exactly renowned as a source of deep thought and literary excellence. I accepted the challenge of making the most of the opportunity when it fell into my lap many years ago, glad to have a gig (any gig!) that paid me for writing.
In addition to the fact that newspaper horoscope columns traditionally don't get no respect from anyone with more than a tenth grade education, there is a further problem: Most of them reflect badly on the ancient and honorable art of astrology. Serious students of planetary symbolism, among whose number I include myself, regard the shallow, superstitious advice contained in most horoscope columns as a gross debasement of the elegant system they aspire to master.
I do my best to transcend the limitations of the genre. Each of my horoscopes is a kind of love letter imbued with my reverence for lively language. Stories and metaphors are the raw materials I work with to invigorate my readers' imaginations. My intention is to boost their power to shape their own fates, which is why I call my column "Free Will Astrology."
I might ask Tauruses to meditate on the meaning of John Berger's observation that "Authenticity depends entirely on being faithful to the essential ambiguity of experience," or compare Virgo's imminent destiny to an unexpected dance contest I engaged in with an eccentric old woman I met while trekking through Germany's Black Forest, or exhort Scorpios to meditate on how their lives in the near future might resemble that of the bird called the bar-tailed godwit, which migrates annually from Alaska to New Zealand by hitching rides on gale-force winds.
Do you see how odd my task is? I'm a devoted astrologer who wrestles my words into a format that most good astrologers disdain. I'm a passionate writer who squeezes my thoughts into a genre that most professional writers ridicule.
On the other hand, because horoscope columns have so little credibility, no one cares if I twist and play with mine. That means I've been able to pull off a feat I never dared to hope for when I was an undergraduate at Duke University studying the work of William Blake, Arthur Rimbaud, Allen Ginsberg, Diane di Prima, and company: that I might someday get paid a decent wage to create disguised poetry in a widely syndicated newspaper column.
There's another perk to the job. Having given myself permission to use "Free Will Astrology" as a vehicle for all my creative urges, I don't have to confine myself to being a poet. I've also been able to be by turns a journalist, a political pundit, a New Age prophet, a science reporter, a philosopher, and an intimate advisor.
There has been a downside to this tremendous freedom, however. It allowed my youthful confusion to blossom into a full-blown identity crisis. At the dawn of my career I was inclined to be indulgent toward my uncertainty. Two decades later, though, I was having recurring dreams of William Blake asking me, "So what kind of writer do you want to be when you grow up?"
As much gratitude as I feel for the privilege of creating 12 oracles every week, there has always been a part of me that longs to produce more comprehensive and permanent artifacts. My first two books, Images Are Dangerous and The Televisionary Oracle, were attempts to address that desire.
Like my astrology column, alas, both of them wanted to be a festive hodgepodge of genres. The creative artist in me was inclined to honor that urge, but the sensible career-builder in me protested. "Arrggghhh," he complained. "A book cannot be a riot of styles if it hopes to reach a wide readership, earn royalties, and get critical respect. It has to be one genre or another! Bookstore employees can't simultaneously shelve it in the poetry, memoir, spirituality, fiction, feminism, and music sections. And the marketing departments of all the publishers in the world agree that trying to straddle a variety of niches is tantamount to an economic death wish."
So declared the part of me that wanted to actually sell some books. But I didn't listen. Instead, I followed my poverty-loving bliss. The results were predictable. About 500 copies of Images Are Dangerous made it into the marketplace, and it was reviewed in a grand total of four publications. The Televisionary Oracle eventually sold more than 9,000, which didn't come close to compensating me for the money I sank into publicity and my book tour. It got 25 reviews, mostly from alt-alt-websites and newspapers that carry my column. The brightest light it generated was a blurb from my favorite novelist Tom Robbins, who said, "I've seen the future of America literature and its name is Rob Brezsny."
Literature! The magic word. He didn't say, "I've seen the future of horoscope columns (or poetic outlaw journalism or crazy visionary rants) and its name is Rob Brezsny." But if anyone else agreed with his assessment, they have yet to step forth and proclaim it. The Televisionary Oracle was bought by cultural creatives who love festive hodgepodges and don't care whether or not they're literature; it was ignored by the custodians of high culture, who were as likely to review it as a Christian fundamentalist would be to praise its lesbian tantric sex scenes.
I began work on PRONOIA Is the Antidote for Paranoia about five minutes after I finished my 23-city tour in support of The Televisionary Oracle. Or rather PRONOIA began working on me. I took dictation while the book told me exactly what it wanted to be. Surprise! It revealed early on that it planned on becoming the mother of all festive hodgepodges.
Sometimes I wasn't smart enough to catch on to its style and message, and so it had to wait for me to ripen. Often that meant I was compelled to go out and have experiences in my actual life that changed me in such a way that I wised up to what the book already knew.
It was for the sake of becoming a better servant of PRONOIA, for instance, that I had to fall in love with the wrong woman, lose $23,000 on a bad investment, and wander alone out into the desert begging for a vision. The lessons I was taught thereby made me far more intelligent, or at least far less stupid, about pronoia.
Luckily, the book was patient with me. It never kicked my ass so hard that I fell over, hit my head, and lost consciousness. Gradually, it proved to me that if I hoped to do it justice, I would have to not only explore and articulate the principles of pronoia, but also embody them. It wouldn't be enough to announce, "Life always gives you exactly what you need, exactly when you need it." I would have to become living proof that that was the case. And I couldn't get away with merely writing the two paragraphs below, I had to actually become the truth they speak:
"Life is a vast and intricate conspiracy designed to keep us well supplied with blessings. What kind of blessings? Palatial homes, attractive lovers, lottery winnings, career success? Maybe. But just as likely: interesting surprises, unexpected challenges, gifts we hardly know what to do with, conundrums that force us to get smarter.
"Novelist William Vollman referred to the latter types of blessings when he said that 'the most important and enjoyable thing in life is doing something that’s a complicated, tricky problem for you that you don’t know how to solve.' Sculptor Henry Moore had a slightly different angle: 'The secret of life is to have a task, something you devote your entire life to, something you bring everything to, every minute of the day for your whole life. And the most important thing is—it must be something you cannot possibly do.'"
The universe is inherently friendly and life is on our side, I learned while creating PRONOIA. But it's difficult to perceive that when we're primarily serving the agendas of our grasping, small-minded selves. And so it's crucial to note that pronoia works in behalf of the soul, not the ego. In fact, if it ever took root as a widely held philosophy, it would probably overthrow your ego and my ego and everyone's ego; it would overthrow the status quo, the government, and even reality itself.
By the time I was halfway done with the book, I had come to see that if I hoped to give birth to it in its full glory, I would have to banish my ego, as much as possible, as a source of motivation for my writing.
In other words, I couldn't worry about whether the book would supercharge my career or earn me money or win me critical acclaim. My duty was simply to communicate the meme of pronoia in all of its paradoxical splendor. If that meant it had to be both a rowdy New Age almanac and an intellectually rigorous treatise, so be it. If that required me to weave a mélange of stories, poems, manifestos, essays, oracles, and reader exercises, so be it.
When PRONOIA finally emerged, my trans-genre operation was complete. I no longer questioned and resisted and fought with the strange blessings that life had been trying to shower me with all those years, but welcomed them with a full heart.
So am I a storyteller trapped in the body of a journalist, or an essayist stuck inside the persona of a poet, or a scholar lurking within the form of a wacky visionary? Am I a mystical seeker who was born to explore spiritual themes or an artistic intellectual whose task it is to illuminate the mysteries of concrete reality here on the material plane? The answer is all of the above. And I thank the universe for granting me this unsolvable mystery.
© 1995-2013 -- Rob Brezsny. All rights reserved