One of the strange things about constant pain is the extent to which it snowballs, gathering other types of pain around itself, until you feel like silently disappearing into the fog, away from everyone, until it relents. While creaking away on my new novel, I have been thinking about the extent to which pain affects mood, and how, at some point, you no longer want to take any emotional risks when it feels as if, at any moment, your face, arm, leg are about to fall off your body.
Gabe Hudson’s honesty and vulnerability on Twitter, particularly when I realized he had been a Marine, grabbed my attention. My tendency is to close myself off and isolate myself like a dog that is about to die, while his approach involves jokes. How does he do that, I've wondered. Plus, his fiction seemed as off-kilter as my own and I am curious whether extreme sensitivity and rigor lead to that. I have a giant talking lemur. He has a talking dragon. Both of us have characters with martial exteriors who nonetheless have big feelings. Gabe drew upon experiences as a Marine for a short story collection Dear Mr. President. He is also the author of Gork, The Teenage Dragon.
The first chapter of Gork is entitled, “Here Begins the Story of How I Found My True Love.” And the novel begins “My name is Gork The Terrible, and I’m a dragon.” The directness of this opening catches us off guard; let’s get right down to business, it says. Next, Gork repeats this direct address, except he remarks, nonchalantly, “Plus I’m a poet.” We’ve got dragons all wrong, he admonishes us.
The breadth of this novel is signaled by an epigraph from the beast-narrative Beowulf, but then, in the narrative, our dragon narrator repudiates Beowulf as “nothing but a pack of slanderous lies about my kind, written by a bum poet who didn’t even have the gumption to sign his own name to the book.” “Bum,” “gumption,” and later, “flapdoodle.” The humorous, unusual word choices persuade us to let down our guards; laughter is a kind of release.
Gabe’s work has appeared in The New Yorker, The New York Times Magazine, McSweeney’s, BuzzFeed, and others. He has received so many honors it doesn’t make sense to recount them all. Here we are in an edited conversation about writing that inspired me, that might inspire you, too. It took place over Twitter direct messages (yes, really —Twitter DMs are good for something).
Anita Felicelli: The voices of your stories and novel have an antic, absurdist energy to them. I wonder to what extent your experience of the Marines influenced the cadence of your prose and style of humor? I think dark humor is often a way of coping with brutal circumstances (the wildest jokes I've ever heard were from attorneys who represented foster care kids in disturbing circumstances, for instance), and I'm wondering to what extent that's true for you as a writer.
Gabe Hudson:I think the voices I use in my fiction, their intensity and velocity and their gallows humor, are hugely influenced by my time in the Marines. I saw so many of the most mesmerizing and weirdly gifted and slightly deranged orators while in the Marine Corps. So many singular voices & rhetorical moves that, at their peak, they seemed to me to venture into the terrain of song. While deranged and funny and earnest, these were 100% performances: that’s a big part of Marine Corps culture. (You’ve seen that part of Full Metal Jacketwhere the DI meets all the recruits & does this deranged but extremely mesmerizing monologue, I’m guessing?)
In the Marines, you were constantly taking classes & training in extremely weird combat stuff. Aspects of survival & killing that you’d never dream up, were it not for this training. All these instructors would teach you by giving amazing, slightly unhinged performances. I should say the presence of death (your own and that of your mates or “the enemy”) as a basic element of the training added gravitas to the proceedings, and a tension that could be played off of for stony-faced solemnity or gallows humor in the scope of a single sentence. To me, it is interesting that death is something that’s never acknowledged in regular society whereas, in the Marines, it is at the center of everything you do.
Invariably, you and your platoon would be somewhere deep in nature, in the woods, or a mountain top, and you’d come upon an instructor who’d step out into the clearing with his rifle & say, “Good afternoon, Devil Dogs!” We’d gather around. He would introduce himself and explain what he was about to teach us, and then he’d tell some very sick joke. Next, he would deliver his lecture, which was basically a complex monologue or piece of performance art, full of rough-hewn humor and dead serious stuff. There would be a lot of call and response. Throughout, he emphasized hyper-masculinity in countenance and demeanor, but it always seemed sort of campy and full of weird mirth. Anyone going out of their way to emphasize such tough guy heteronormative values to the point of parody seems to nod at the possibility that they are, in fact, none of things. As performance pieces, these lectures are still some of the most beautiful things I have witnessed. I loved these experiences because they were so fucking bizarre, unlike anything I’d seen before or since. You definitely felt like, oh shit, this really is the Marines & these motherfuckers are truly nuts. Like being around highly ritualized, but beautiful performance art shot through with the grimmest sort of humor, set against a backdrop of pristine nature.
These ultra “masculine” voices (definitely riddled with what we’d call toxic masculinity), full of confidence & weird Marine slang, seemed like beautiful songs for me to heist and then, in the course of my fiction narratives, keep subverting, so that the main character would arrive at a place very different from where they started.
If you think about it, Marines are monsters. That’s their archetype and self-perpetuated mythology. I love having monster narrators who then turn out to have complex psyches & feelings & lots of confusion about sexual attraction and gender identify and so forth. These ramped-up voices are comic but fundamentally earnest pathways into complex and, hopefully, extremely vulnerable emotional spaces. The tension between that hyped “masculinity” & extreme vulnerability is a space that I’m naturally drawn to because it can be darkly funny & heartbreaking. It generates that antic energy you mentioned.
Anita: I love what you say about trying to use what I've deemed antic energy as a way to disarm the reader only to then subvert expectations. Does this movement towards vulnerability feel like an emotional risk to you? How do you stay engaged with the emotional risks of writing, as opposed to the physical risks involved in being a Marine? So much of training, as I see it from the outside, perhaps another point of commonality with litigation, seems to be powering through and sucking it up. Is that true in your writing practice?
Gabe: I think my engagement with the emotional risk is something that for whatever reason just comes natural. I tend to be extremely open and available to whatever emotional force is going on around me in real life and on the page. I’ve spent a decent amount of my life trying to conceal how one thing or another makes me choke up or become overwhelmed with emotion, because I know it might seem odd or not make sense to those around me. I am frequently moved by what I perceive to be as the spirit in people. I have always been an extremely sensitive person who has often lived in social contexts where sensitivity was not a valued character trait. Nobody expects that level of sensitivity from me because as I mentioned, in terms of appearance, I don’t fit the stereotype. Also because of my time as a Marine, people make certain assumptions about me. None of which involve sensitivity. How all this relates to my ability to remain available to emotional risk on the page is because I write in complete solitude & am free to be moved deeply or get choked up about what I’m writing without concern of someone seeing me. Making myself available to the emotional risk is honoring who I naturally am.
In terms of my writing practice, I suspect to someone looking in, it might seem like I’m sucking it up and powering through. But, in my honest assessment of myself, that is not what I’m doing. There has always been a certain amount of fear associated with writing. It can be intoxicating, but I’m also aware there’s a dark psychic undercurrent to it. I never know what’s going to show up on the page, so I always get my several hours of writing in every day.
Sometimes I wonder why I elected this route where I spend so much time alone in a room. Like a lot of writers, I’m sure, I feel I’ve paid a real psychic cost over the years. Murakami in his book on the benefits of running talks about how the process of writing releases a poison into your soul. Unfortunately, I do believe that’s true. So don’t be surprised if I take up running sometime soon. Like tomorrow.
My ultimate goal of moving toward vulnerability does feel like an emotional risk but it also feels like a privilege to put myself at risk like that. That where the strange truth about the human heart is going to reveal itself, and strange truth is what I seek. It’s, of course, incredibly important that I have no preconception of what that truth might be. Only the narrative knows. And if I live up to my end of the bargain, I hope it will reveal itself to me. No matter how much antic energy I deploy and no matter how many weird jokes I make, I trained myself early on to think of those endeavors as stepping-stones to a place where the reader has dropped their guard and I can try to break their heart (and my own) or move them in some memorable way. Probably because that journey reflects my own life experience.
If I spend the day with a friend or I’m teaching an MFA seminar, I’m going to be throwing out jokes throughout. But the purpose of those jokes is to try and tear down the metaphysical distance that exists been us. To cultivate the potential for serious trust & vulnerability. At some point in that afternoon with a friend, or while teaching, I’m going to drop all the verbal hijinks and jokes and I’m going to earnestly look at them and tell them something very candid and vulnerable (and, in so doing, hopefully make space for them to do the same). None of this is plotted out as it’s happening. There’s just a natural rhythm that I know works for me. It’s the only method I’ve discovered through much trial and error that brings me in closest proximity to what I think of as truth.
Ideally, maximum vulnerability occurs near the end of a fictional narrative. By that point, I have finally earned the right to really go for it as if I were on stage, singing a song that had been slowly working its way to a point of maximum deep feeling. I hope, in the course of singing, I’ve already set a number of melodies and tones and callbacks in motion so that, by the climax, the song itself rises up and has a life force of its own. A logic of its own.
Up there on stage, when I make my move towards peak vulnerability and emotional risk, it’s as if I’m stepping into the spotlight and I am singing with full force. I’ve given myself over completely to the song. And the song will do with me whatever it wants because it possesses me & is using me as an instrument to release whatever truth it contains. At that point, when I’ve slipped into the vulnerable space I’ve been aiming for all along, I am just along for the ride. I submit to the song and go wherever it wants to take me and see whatever it wants to show me. That is the ultimate aesthetic experience in my own writing life.
Another metaphor for this narrative strategy is bodysurfing. You ride the lip of the wave as it crests for as long as you can but then the wave crashes and you go under and tuck into a ball. The incredible force of the crashing wave makes it feel like you’ve been shot out of a cannon, so that you careen along the ocean floor toward the shore. At that moment, when you are shooting along, it is vital that you hold your breath and don’t panic and allow the crashed wave to expend its energy. This is a similar state to the emotional risk in which I place myself near the end of the narrative. It is akin to an act of faith and the kind of fearlessness that is a byproduct of faith.
If, when I’m in that peak vulnerable state, I tried to regain normal consciousness, or hit the brakes on what was transpiring, (if I tried to extricate myself from the song before it was through with me), then I suspect that I might come undone and suffer some sort of psychological damage. But, instead, I stay tucked in ball & shoot along the ocean floor & don’t panic until the force of the narrative expends itself.
I only recognized this about my writing in retrospect, but almost all my narrators eventually go temporarily insane or experience extreme dissociation or breaks from reality. They crack under the pressure of it all. But even in the midst of their mania and insanity they still use a weird & relatable logic to cling to their humanity. I only know of a few writers who do this sort of insanity convincingly: Poe and Charlotte Gilman in The Yellow Wallpaper, come to mind. It is those sorts of mental spaces that I hope to render convincingly. Obviously, in the context of Marines as fictional characters, a lot falls under the category of PTSD.
Towards the end of most of my narratives, I can hear the character’s voice speaking out in my head, once they’ve “lost it,” and it is incredibly spooky. It moves me deeply. The high I get off that experience as writer is as close to a kind of bliss as art making can bring me. While I use the strategy of joking, it is only so I can soften up the reader and get them drop their guard, so I can try to get the reader to connect with their own humanity and break their heart.
That antic, manic energy you mentioned earlier can be an engine to power the reader into extreme mental & emotional space. I also think this stuff speaks to some sort of truth about myself that I’m always digging into. I am a big person (I say this with zero pride, it can actually suck in a lot of ways, but I am 6 ‘4 & 230 pounds). And even in the Marines, I was a big person who very much looked the part. I appeared to be one thing on the outside—this big Marine in infantry who was fit. But that is not how I felt on the inside. Whenever I meet someone new, they’ll remark on my size & I say this isn’t who I really am—I’ll say that there is a little, 2-inch-tall woman in my chest; that’s who I really am. Of course, it’s a joke and it makes people laugh, but I say it with sincerity. It gets at some larger truth about myself that I’m always excavating in fiction.
Anita:I'm interested in your remark about mental health; it is something I have to work hard to preserve. It takes courage to subvert expectations, to cut against the grain, which I can see in your tweets as well. What gives you courage in the face of struggle, memory, depression?
Gabe: My students give me courage. And, by courage, I mean inspiration & a sense of optimism. For me, the classroom is a place where we can have unique conversations that feel real and true. It’s the place where we can do intense creative work as a group of writers and grow and learn together. Technically, I’m the teacher, but if I do my job correctly, I’m placing a tremendous amount of attention on the students. I’m constantly making minor adjustments to match their needs. In that sense, they’re the ones who are teaching me how to do my job.
I’ve been teaching for a long time; my students are a loose-knit family that have stayed in my orbit through the years. Sometimes I won’t hear from a former student for several years, but they’ll reach out and we’ll have a phone call. Because of the hard work we did together, and the trust, and our shared sense of values, we can have an extremely honest and intimate conversation. I’m always a little shocked by the depth of connection. Those relationships over time have come to feel somehow sacred.
Another thing that gives me courage is the opportunity to tell the truth. If, in the present moment, I feel I have the opportunity to tell the truth, I feel inspired & optimistic. I don’t mind talking about my own struggles with mental illness and depression because I know there are a lot of people out there who are suffering. And if by acknowledging my own struggles I can possibly alleviate someone else’s sense of isolation & anguish, I am happy to do it.
To that end, I find that I am most courageous when whatever I’m doing is ostensibly in service of others. And that includes writing. If I write exclusively for my own ego and glory, I don’t feel motivated. I know there are some writers who do and achieve great success with that mindset. More power to them. For whatever reason I’m not wired that way; sometimes I wonder if it would be better if I were. But if I think of my writing as somehow being in service of others, I can draw courage and inspiration from that.
I am still taking questions about writing! And memories of the Bay Area. Hit me up!