Have you ever inspired someone?
Notes on Prince, being a role model, and what we can teach others.
So, I really like Prince.
That isn't controversial to say about one of the most innovative and influential artists of the 20th (and if you were keeping up, 21st) century. I also know he's a complicated figure and there have been exhaustive discussions about his legacy since his passing in 2016. It's the kind of legacy you must put a disclaimer on, lest someone comes into the comments section to scold you for not acknowledging that a grown man I never met held beliefs and did things that I don't and wouldn't.
But I've also been listening to his music for about twenty-five years. My mother used to have his CDs and they were always in rotation in our house, alongside David Bowie, Cyndi Lauper, Boy George. It's hard to untie Prince the Man from the warm, pleasant memories I have of Prince the Artist. The sentimentality comes from being too young to know what any of this really meant as Dirty Mind played on summer days, when I was ten or eleven and feeling like I was in on some secret adult knowledge.
This was Prince, after all. Prince, who did not operate on the same plane of existence as the rest of us. These were songs for men and women, about the complexities of love and sex, heartache and euphoria. There are too many certified bangers to count. His work helped mold my very soft ideas of gender and sexuality when I was very young. Lyrics like "I'm not a woman / I'm not a man / I am something you'll never understand" and "I was never the kind to make a fuss / When he was there / Sleeping in between the two of us" were mind-blowing at a time that these things were fodder for jokes or simply not talked about at all.
So, what are you supposed to say when someone says that you inspire them?
(I'm not comparing myself to Prince here, by the way. That was just my awkward transition into the topic of today's newsletter.)
The answer to that is…I don't know, really. People Online™ tell me this not infrequently, I guess? Not on a daily basis, but often enough that it prompts a strange, formless emotional response. Not unpleasant, just…difficult to articulate. Do I feel flattered? Do I feel proud? I always say something to the effect of Thank you, that's a very kind thing to say, I appreciate hearing that, because it's true. Those are all factually correct statements.
But what can you say when someone tells you that you're their role model?
People tell me that I inspired them to start writing.
To get back into writing.
To put out their work.
To stop chasing the hollow, obligatory book that they felt compelled to finish and write something they deeply care about instead.
It isn't even just writers, either. I get these kinds of comments from people who work in other mediums besides prose fiction. If I can write and publish whatever I want, then they can, too. I am proof that it's possible. (I never guaranteed anybody would make money off this, but I'm up front about how little I make, so don't say I ever led you astray.) So, over time, some people, some very nice people who have said very nice things, have gone on and done just that. Written the damn book or done the damn thing they wanted to and put it out, in some form or another, because they wanted to.
Because they said that I inspired them to.
And that's a funny thing, isn't it?
I find it funny because, by every and all metrics, to the casual observer, I am a failure. A hobbyist. A wanna-be. A crank who posts too much. I have no agent, no book deal because I decided I didn't want to pursue traditional publishing. I probably could have done okay for myself if I stuck with it and wrote more marketable things, but I didn't. I have no online Brand and don't much behave the way I'm told I'm supposed to. My name is not found in anyone's mouths, most likely because I've shot mine off in public a few too many times and rubbed a few too many people the wrong way. I write to please myself, to hone my craft, and to tell my stories, rather than Become An Author, Market Myself, and Sell Books.
And I take my work as seriously as the grave. I think I'm pretty damn great at what I do, even if I have no real markers of "success" to show for it.
Basically, I'm very good at being Magen Cubed and writing Magen Cubed books, but I'm pretty shit at everything else.
But I don't think that's quite it, you know? You can read anyone's Twitter thread. Read their newsletter. Join their Discord. Enroll in their class. You can pay for their tips and tricks on Becoming An Author, Marketing, and Selling Books. They can tell you how to talk, how to post, how to write a query letter. If they're any good, they might help you out.
They can show you how to Be An Author, but I can't. They can teach you how to effectively make and sell a product, but I won't because I have no products to sell. All I can talk about is being A Writer. An impolite, frequently impatient, write because you have to, write because you need to, write because you will lose your whole mind if you don't get this out of your head tonight writer.
I do not have time for imposter syndrome. I do not have time for soft feelings and hand-wringing. We're making art, and we're getting good at it. I'm not saying you need to suffer and die for it, but it better mean something to you. It better please you, sustain you, make you laugh, make you cry, make you feel like you've bled out on the floor when you're done.
I want every story I put out to feel like I've set the piano on fire and left the stage. If it doesn't, it goes in the trash. We're starting over. We'll do it better next time. We are constantly improving and if not, we better hang it up. If we're not striving to be the best damn artists, telling the best damn stories we can, making meaning out of the meaningless because we're stupid enough to think we have something worth saying, then it's not worth doing.
I have been told that this makes me a little…intense might be the word, for it?
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There's this part at the end of If I Was Your Girlfriend by Prince that I really like. (Yes, we're talking about Prince again.) It's kind of a strange song, written from the perspective of a man asking his ex-girlfriend how their relationship would differ if he was her best female friend. In it, he talks about all the intimacies and pleasures they could share if he was her girlfriend, unfettered by the constraints of masculinity and the role of being her boyfriend. He is at once the girlfriend she confides in when she's hurt and the source of that hurt, existing at the same time.
It's a little conceptual, a little desperate, and a little weirdly gender essentialist at times, but all in a deeply fascinating way.
At the end of the song (a certified banger, by the way), as the singing falls away and is replaced by a spoken monologue, the backing track becomes ominous, almost distorted. Haunting. The narrator describes the elation, the ecstatic completion, of becoming his girlfriend's boyfriend-girlfriend, her man-woman, and being naked in front of each other, pleasuring her honestly and earnestly in a way he never could before. Then they lie together in the dark and imagine what silence looks like.
This has been one of my favorite songs, and my favorite Prince song, since I was ten years old.
This is what writing is, to me.
The unhinged ecstasy that comes of imagining the contours of silence.
Attempting to externalize something that you can only feel by forcing those feelings into existence, making them real through form and function. A strange, often unspoken, frequently unnameable feeling, like the odd specificity of wanting to be two people at once to the one you love, beyond the borders of embodied gender experience. And then making that feeling real to other people, like making silence real.
I do not expect another human being on this planet to feel the way that I do about writing. In fact, I wouldn’t recommend it. I fully expect that people would much rather hear about writing and publishing from someone nice and less intense. Someone who will tell you how to maximize your daily word count or optimize your writing schedule. They can show you how to do the business of writing.
However, I will tell you a story that made me feel like I was hemorrhaging while writing it, and then I'll tell you why it's the best thing I've written so far. And I won't care if you liked it or not, because I didn't make it for you.
But I'm going to show it to you anyway, because these feelings need to live outside of me, or I may actually combust.
So, no. I can't teach anyone how to act like an author or sell a story. But if I make someone want to write a book, the way I need to write a book, I consider that a success. Maybe that sounds strange, but the people that have inspired me in my life, who have made me want to write the damn book and do the damn thing, didn’t make me want to be successful. They didn’t teach me anything about the business of art. To say that I have been inspired by Prince would be an understatement, but he never sat me down and explained how to file my taxes as a freelancer. It’s good to learn different things from different people, and to draw inspiration from different sources. We are not all teachers, but some of us still have something useful to say.
And while I may never get used to being told that I’m an inspiration or a role model to some, it’s something that I take very seriously. If I made someone else feel about my work the way I feel about Prince, then I can feel good at the end of the day.
With that, I will leave you with a warning of things to come.
The next time we meet, we will be talking about identity, trauma, recovered memories, Holden Caulfield, and the series that shaped everything I’ve ever written.
See you soon.
An Excerpt From Making Deals With God: A Neon Genesis Evangelion Essay
There's an excellent chance that if you ever asked me what the most important story in the world is --
The most important story to me is, the most relevant, the most impactful, the source of everything that has made me the human being I am today --
I would tell you it's Neon Genesis Evangelion.
But the thing about Neon Genesis Evangelion is that...I can't talk about it. Or I couldn't, anyway. For twenty years, talking about Evangelion put a gnawing, aching fear in me that I couldn't express. The kind of fear reserved for nights alone in the dark, thinking about God. It sutured my mouth shut with wire in polite conversation. It burned my fingertips when I touched a keyboard or phone. As if struggling to speak the name of one's maker, the architect of you, in all the ways you are complete and whole and yet simultaneously unmade.
Made and unmade. Cells interlinking cells. Bonds severed. Transmissions lost in the void.
So I just...didn't talk about Neon Genesis Evangelion. And I kept not talking about it for two decades of my life.
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