“You know what the problem is, right?” Carter was rubbing his right temple now, a combination of the double Jameson he’d just downed and the conversation we were having.
I took another sip of my scotch, knowing that I was going to have to order another one soon at this rate. I looked at him for a brief couple of seconds, saw that he was going to string this along, raised my eyebrows and shook my head no.
Carter’s fingers slid down to the table in the bar and started drumming the coaster slightly. “It’s a matter of political correctness,” he said slowly. “You want to create art, you want to exhibit your feelings, but you are also living in the wrong age to do any of those things.”
Ah, political correctness. This was always one of his biggest conversational tropes, complaining about political correctness. “I really don’t think that’s it,” I said quickly. “You’re always blaming everything on that. Can’t it just be that I’m out of ideas?”
I looked around the hotel bar, wondering why I’d stopped smoking a few years ago. This entire month, from the writer’s block that started it to the conversation that we were having now, just screamed cigarette in my mind’s ear. Then again, the hotel bar didn’t allow smoking inside, it was freezing outside, and I only missed smoking when I was drinking or under a lot of stress. Granted, both of those conditions existed right now, but…
“Look,” Carter slurred, motioning to the waitress for another round of drinks, “this is exactly the world of political correctness. But it’s not like a normal political correctness. Listen.”
I looked at him and nodded.
“Okay, so you’re a special case. Most people aren’t even worried about creating things. They’re not writing anything, they’re not making music, they’re just fucking EXISTING, man,” he said. “They just hopped on the fucking metro train of life, sat themselves down near the route map, and are playing on their phones until they die. Right?”
“Well, I mean…there are plenty of creative people out there.”
“Bullshit,” he said, grinning at the waitress as she brought two more glasses to the table. “You know that’s silly. Look at where you work. Big lobbying firm in D.C., you’re surrounded by people with college degrees. What do they do with themselves? Go to parties and screw around on Match.com. And try to get promoted. You could be doing all that yourself, you know.”
I shrugged my shoulders and sipped from the new scotch in front of me.
“But you don’t,” Carter said, “Because you want something more satisfying. You want to create things, you want to exist outside of this miserable shell that most of your co-workers and friends let themselves get cocooned in when they left college. And you do, so cheers to that.”
“I don’t get what this has to do with political correctness at all,” I said.
“Alright, good point. Let me explain it this way,” he said. “Let’s say you write a new blog post tonight. And your muse, your creative energy, wants you to write about how you really love your fiancée and your sex life is satisfying, yet you want to have sex with three or four other girls you know, because the need for variety is intrinsic in the human condition, and has nothing to do with your emotional feelings towards your fiancée. You may even want to compare it to music, because only the brainless would listen to the same artist over and over again, even if it’s their favorite, so how can we be expected to do the same in our private lives? Are you writing that in your blog post?”
I laughed and shook my head. “Okay, first of all, we had that philosophical discussion like six months ago, and that’s cheating on your part for bringing it up. And second…no, of course I’m not writing that blog post.”
“Why not?” he said. “What’s wrong with it? Seems like a logical philosophical question to me.”
“You know damn well what’s wrong with it,” I said. “Not only does that make my fiancée question my fidelity, but it also could end up causing my boss to get mad.”
“Okay, see? This is where political correctness comes in,” Carter said, suddenly all business. “First off, you’re not actually going out there and having sex with these other girls, but you’re making a larger point about the inconsistencies of societal norms and expectations, and one that makes some sense when you compare it to the things being said and written about in our generation. Second, you work for a firm that lobbies on behalf of the fucking telecommunications industry, Ryan,” he laughed. “I mean, really? How does anything you wrote have anything to do with what they do?”
“It’s the perception that matters. And you know that.”
Carter waved his finger in the air. “Ah, but see, that’s the issue. The perception of you as a worker shouldn’t be impacted by this at all. But you want to be seen as having a proper attitude and approach to life, as viewed through the lens of your employer. And they want the same for you. Isn’t that basically the textbook definition of political correctness in action?”
I had my doubts about that, but it wasn’t worth the argument. “Look,” I said. “Ultimately I just have to accept where I’m at with this. I want to write, I want to be creative, but I also have to be careful what I say because people have a tendency to get offended.”
“And that’s a shitty way to create, Ryan,” Carter said.
“It’s the only way I have at this point,” I replied. “I’m aware that it’s limiting, and I’m aware that what I end up writing is only a fraction of what I’ve got up here. But I have a job that’s at least paying the bills, and I’m not going to get a job anywhere just writing my thoughts down for a living.”
“I don’t buy that,” he said. “You have to take a chance on this at some point.”
“Look…no.” I glanced around the bar and over into the hotel lobby. Carter and I had known each other since college, where we met at the college radio station. We used to get into these sorts of arguments over meaningless things like baseball and politics. Now the topics, though less national, seemed more weighty. It was always about where one or the other of us were going in life.
I forced a small smile. “I’m doing alright,” I said. “I’m able to put some things together, write on occasion, and capture what’s around me. It’s really quite fascinating, living here in DC. So many personalities on display.”
“Right,” said Carter, “Except you’re only writing about a tenth of what you’re capturing. And this is my point. You’ve got to let all this stuff get outside of you, because it’s just sort of sitting inside you at this point and it’s not doing anyone any good, let alone yourself.”
He had a point, but I was trying not to encourage that line of conversation. Didn’t matter, he kept right on.
“Any good art,” he said, downing the rest of the Jameson in his glass and raising it at the waitress for another. “Any good art is going to have rough edges, but it’s got to be real, and it has to have that…that soul imprint that comes out of the creator. You’re worried about writing so many things, man, it’s sad. You don’t want to write anything political because you’re worried your boss will get pissed. You don’t want to write anything sexual because of your fiancée. You don’t want to write anything about characters because you post your blog on Facebook and your friends all see it and you’re worried they’re gonna be upset, and you don’t want to write anything deeply personal because you think your co-workers are going to think less of you.”
“Not LESS of me,” I hissed. “I’m honestly just worried they’re going to start thinking of me, period.”
I finished my drink just as the waitress brought another. “And look, man,” I said. “You keep talking about I have to let these things get on the page because that’s how it needs to be. You’re a sports radio host, Carter. You get paid for your opinions. People see something strange or controversial from you, it’s almost expected. Hell, it’s shocking when it’s not strange or controversial from you. But I’m in another world now, a different world. Nobody in this world wants to see my internal dialogue, unless it’s about innocuous bullshit like what my favorite 90s movie was, or the latest craft beer I drank.”
Carter smiled and shrugged. “You really think they’re going to be that focused on what you’re saying? You must be a superstar in that office for that many people to care.”
“I’m not a superstar at all,” I said, expecting to have something else to follow up with. I suddenly realized I didn’t.
“Then what are you worried about?” Carter laughed. “You’re going to throw away your creative apex because you’re afraid some jerk in your office is going to make a big deal about your writing?”
“I’m worried,” I said, “about people thinking I’m not taking my job seriously. No, actually, scratch that. That’s not right. It’s more that I’m worried that people are going to start thinking negatively about what I do because of what I write. I know that sounds strange but it’s true.”
“I don’t get it,” Carter said, leaning back and taking another drink.
“It’s like this. I have a friend who’s a professor in the business school at American. He teaches finance, has a PhD, pretty normal guy. But he’s creative. And he likes to write about things. Lots of fiction writing, mostly political stuff but there’s other things in there, relationship stuff. Interesting dude. But he’s told me several times that his colleagues in the faculty, and people around the country in his field, they’ve seen his writings and they actively question him as a person in the field now. Even though he’s writing fiction, they’re taking what he writes as some sort of internal commentary from him, like he’s the one who believes what his characters are saying.”
Carter shook his head. “See, that’s some screwed up people. That’s people who don’t understand the creative process.”
“YES, EXACTLY,” I laughed. “And that, my friend, is the problem. You want me to write and be creative, and trust me, I want the same. But I’m surrounded by a bunch of people who don’t understand the creative process. Anything I write has to be fucking neutered, because anything with cursing, sex, or unconventional ideas is going to be received as some sort of personal manifesto by me. Not as a work of fiction with a bunch of characters doing character things.”
Carter gazed around the room. “So just don’t let them see what you write?”
“Hah,” I laughed. “Social media makes that impossible. It’s funny, you know. 20 years ago, I’m probably just writing at home and sending things in to magazines and small publications and able to do this by myself, without anyone seeing it. Now I have a blog and a Facebook page, and everyone sees what I write, and it’s like being in a fishbowl.”
“And that,” said Carter, “is a shitty way to create.”
“It really is,” I said. “I started writing as a way to be myself. So I can either be myself and risk people looking at me differently, or I can create a persona to write in that no one knows is me. Neither of those is worth doing.”
“Or you could quit your job,” smiled Carter.
“Hah, yeah. When they start paying me for blog posts, man. When they start paying me for blog posts.”