apt Anniversary Essay by Dan Pinkerton
My new workplace distraction is to build Spotify playlists around arbitrary themes. Scottish alt music, albums made/produced by Danger Mouse. Recently, albums from 1994, the year I finished high school. I’m reminded anew what a great year that was, both for music and for me. I did a lot of golfing and swimming and beer-drinking that summer. I had a fantastic minimum-wage job and a lousy secondhand car and was headed to college in the fall, newly single. In my playlist were records I kept on constant rotation, Pearl Jam, Soundgarden, Beck, Tori Amos. Weezer and Cake and Portishead were just getting going. Grunge was in its heyday. If you listened you could hear the last gasps of hair metal. Tom Petty, Johnny Cash, and Pink Floyd all had new records out. Many tribes and schools were converging. I didn’t love all of it; and to be clear, I wasn’t listening to vinyl LPs—Christ, I’m not that old!—but rather “little silver discs” (as Arcade Fire calls them). There was no such thing as Spotify in ’94, its current CEO 11 at the time.
The fine folks at apt now wish to know what its contributors were doing a decade ago. This will require a new playlist. Sorry, but to get a good nostalgia list going, you can’t be all revisionist and throw in stuff you’ve since discovered to make your past self seem cooler. Instead you have to stick with what you actually liked at the time. So what did I find? My music scene started crumbling after 1994. Were the mid-nineties truly the apex of music and everything’s been going downhill ever since, or could it just be me? Am I already pining for the good old days? Clue #1: I found only a handful of albums from 2005 I listened to when they first came out. What the heck was I doing if not listening to music? About all I remember from ’05, sonically, are the opening strains of My Morning Jacket’s “Wordless Chorus,” the shock and awe that was their album Z. Clue #2: My 2005 tastes were weird echoes of my 1994 tastes. Beck. Weezer. Even Madonna, who put out a pretty good dance record that year. I saw her on tour during her parkour phase and she was great, still looking sexy in a retro leotard. My tastes maybe had not died but they’d definitely grown older, more staid, nearly Canadian in their whiteness.
In 2003, I entered an MFA program, which abetted my Peter Pan Syndrome, so by 2005, everything was basically the same: still listening to the same tunes, still in school, still living my peripatetic life. Then the decision to have kids, which of course changed everything. When she was seven months pregnant, my wife—always a good sport—attended a Sting concert with me. About midway through, we realized the music was just “too darn loud” (here I’m picturing the nerdy Huey Lewis of Back to the Future). We climbed to the empty nosebleed seats and viewed the show from a great and newly necessary height, puzzling over Sting’s between-song banter about English foxhunts. We’d gone to dozens of shows but had never before felt so misplaced, as though we’d just walked into an actuary convention or quantum physics classroom.
Around the time our son was born, I read an interview with J. Robert Lennon, who had just published a book called Pieces for the Left Hand. He mentioned that the stories in the book, short anecdotes, were written in the stretches when his infant son was napping. This resonated with me. I, too, was a father with a new child who napped! I, too, could write brief magic realist fables in these quiet interludes! I found Lennon’s book and read it, loved it, tried to emulate it, failed utterly. But this was a lot of what I was doing in 2005: reading, copying, failing. In school, I was working toward a dual degree in fiction and poetry, and I thought there was some weird nexus where the two forms met. I sought out writers—Gary Lutz, Diane Williams, Lydia Davis, Christopher Kennedy, Matthea Harvey—who seemed to verify my theory.
The fragments I wrote were neither poetry nor prose, I later realized, though some of them eventually grew into longer stories. This was what I did between 2005 and 2015: I expanded and cut and rewrote all the reams of raw stuff I’d put to paper in grad school. With my writing, as with my music, I was circling like a dog on a chain, digging a groove. I’m surprisingly okay with that. The existing work grew stronger. I tossed out some poems, revised others, put together a few manuscripts (currently piled on my desk, waiting to be sent out). I finished my MFA, got a job, bought a house, had another kid, sold my house, bought a different house, took up marathon running. New MFA programs sprouted up. My alma mater stopped offering one. I became obsessed with the financial crisis, fretted about 529s and 401Ks, feared losing my deadening desk job in a cubicle farm where I now listen to too much Spotify.
In the last decade, my life has been heavily revised, but my writing habits have remained constant. I write poetry until I start hating poetry, then I write short stories until I start hating short stories, a cycle of death and rebirth. I don’t go to quite so many concerts. Once you hit 40, you become that guy, the one standing in back with his water bottle, nodding along, yawning and checking his watch (yes, he still wears a wristwatch! and it’s not even a smart watch!), cotton stuffed in his ears to preserve what little hearing he’s got left. I’ve started reading more poetry. Ten years ago, I didn’t have the patience for it. As for writing, it’s my perspective that’s changed more than anything. In grad school, teaching still seemed like a plausible profession, maybe since the only model we saw was the teacher/writer. We were urged to type up a thesis and send it out, which would promptly lead to publication and the tenure-track job of our choice. Or maybe we’d dash off a well-received novel that would sell a ton of copies and get optioned for a film. Or maybe we’d score some work in the writer’s room of a hit TV show, our fallback choice. Delusions are so easy to succumb to.
I discovered that your Profession is whatever allows you to pay your bills. Swivel chair, simulated wood-grain desk, cubicle. Anything else is a hobby, no matter your passion or dedication to it. That sounds harsh, but for me the realization had a liberating effect. There were no longer any expectations, no pressures to publish. What had been absent from the writing began to seep back in: fun. Writing became the reward I gave myself after a day of Excel spreadsheets, crying kids, credit card statements, a lawn that needed to be mowed.
I still send stuff out, not with any sense of urgency but mainly to be finished with it. I sold all my CDs. Music exists now, apparently, in a cloud, and you just borrow it when you need some. The old impulse was toward hoarding, but when hoarding became stigmatized on TV, everyone started decluttering. I’m getting rid of some books, clearing up space, trying to read more on my Kindle. I don’t mind it. In fact, after you’ve moved a few times you realize the Kindle is much easier on your lower back than a box of hardbound books. It’s not so much that my literary or musical tastes have changed or what I write is any different. It’s the corona around the stuff that has evolved in the past decade, the technologies and perceptions. It’s no longer about “owning” the CD, “collecting” the book, “leveraging” the writing for material gain. It’s the thing itself, the pure joy of a good hook, a lyrical passage, the pleasure of making art.
More work by Dan Pinkerton in apt:
“Window House” (March 2015)
Dan Pinkerton lives with his family in Urbandale, Iowa. His work has appeared recently in Barrow Street, Canteen, and 32 Poems.