SWEAT STAINED REVIEW: CONFESSIONS OF A BLUE COLLAR MISFIT
How to Maintain Hope in a Hopeless World
By Dan Denton
-Smoke a lot of weed.
-Find the poems, books, movies or video games that feel like a security blanket, and wallow in them.
-Distract yourself from reality.
-Get a tattoo.
-Look for sunshine and take note of every kindness you find.
-Never forget to say thank you, even if no one is welcome.
-Listen to lots of music.
-Read until the traffic noises outside disappear forever.
At least that’s how I do it.
I was talking to a new friend, and I heard myself say, “yeah, there hasn’t been a lot of softness and comfort in my life, but I appreciate it when I find it.”
And I’ve been thinking a lot about the things I’ve written, the poems, stories and books, and I’ve been working my hardest at writing something positive for once. Most of what I’ve written is good, some of it really good, but just because something is good doesn’t mean it’s not sad. Just because something is beautiful doesn’t mean it won’t hurt you.
I have a new novel releasing in October from Roadside Press, and it’s called The Dead and the Desperate. True to its title, it’s full of addiction, poverty, hopelessness, drugs and sex workers, mental health challenges, fist fights, fucking, and death. Writing it nearly broke me, as I took myself back to my early 20’s, when life was full of all those things. It’s the most beautiful piece of writing I’ve ever hammered out, but it took a year of talk therapy to unwind the horrors it dredged up.
I hope you’ll read the damned thing, but even more I’ve been fighting myself to write something happy for once. To write something that feels like a gentle hug instead of a kick to the sternum. Maybe write something more palatable to the mainstream for once, but fuck man, I gotta tell you, my heart ain’t in it.
One thing I know about me and art, is I only like the stuff that makes me feel. It’s why I fell in love with the blues at 14 when I found a CD of John Lee Hooker’s at my local library. I didn’t know as much as I do now, about all the things John Lee was singing about, but goddamn did I feel it, and understand it. No fucking interpreter needed. It’s why I fell in love with punk rock. They knew about the rage and anger that was growing in my adolescent heart. It’s why I fell in love with hip hop, who has taken over from the punks and made rage a true art form that’s ever evolving. It’s why Nighthawks from Edward Hopper is my favorite painting. I can feel the inside of that nighttime diner. I’ve been there. Those are my people sitting at the counter.
It’s why I write like I do. I can write beautiful sentences all day. Can do it with the best of them. Been working at it since I was seven years old, ya know? But if there’s no heart in those beautiful sentences, then they’re garbage to me. I can look back at all my poems, and I can pick out and show you the ones that I wrote just to write, and didn’t come burning out of my guts like the afterburner of taco Tuesday and too much whiskey. Some of those poems are poems my readers have loved the most, those poems I wrote that I don’t care about, and I know they’re good poems, but my heart wasn’t fucking in them.
So, what do you want me to write about now that I’ve quit the drugs, and mostly given up the sex workers? Want me to write about how warm and cozy life has been? How I found unfathomable success in life? Unfathomable by former homeless alcoholic standards? I can tell you how a poor kid from the projects that society had given up on got elected union steward at the largest unionized auto plant in the U.S. I can tell you how a once homeless, bipolar alcoholic managed to become a published author. I talk about these things everyday. But if I’m going to tell you about them, I also have to tell you about the other parts. The manic months with no sleep. The years spent fighting a voice inside me that keeps telling me to kill myself, and how hard it is to live with that voice everyday, and still be a union steward. And I’m not going to give you a prayer list of all my heartbreaks, but it’s broken, and I’m broken, and mental health doesn’t stop being an issue just because you get sober, or find a good job. Divorce and break ups don’t feel anymore like a rose garden whether you’re sleeping on a park bench or in a house you used to own. Rejection isn’t easier after success.
Life is tough, man. It’s always been tough, and I can’t imagine it ever being easy. And I’m living my best life right this minute. I’ve never had more freedom than I’ve had this summer. I’ve been to 13 states in the last 90 days. I’ve stood at the mouth of the Grand Canyon, raved in the dessert with hippies and artists. I won a poker tournament at the Horseshoe Hall of Fame Poker room with Doyle Brunson and Phil Helmuth hanging on the wall looking over my shoulder. I’ve met some of my literary heroes, and am about to have my best novel to date released. But I’ve also sat alone at 2:30am, pacing my tiny apartment floors in my underwear, wondering why I keep pushing on. Surviving all those battles in life has left me who I am, a man in his 40’s with 100 health scare red flags looming over every hill, and a pick up truck full of emotional baggage that no one else is signing up quick to help lug around. That voice I told you about earlier, the one that isn’t my friend, he’s still there everyday, sometimes louder than others, and some days I wonder if I know what happiness is, or if I’ll ever know.
And of course, I know what happiness is. It’s a long conversation with a new friend that feels like you’ve known them much longer. It’s a new book of poetry from Bruce Isaacson that’s so tender and beautiful, but somehow still punk rock that it leaves your heart spinning for days. It’s a letter from an old friend you haven’t heard from in ages. It’s this cup of coffee I’m drinking. This joint I’m about to smoke. This sentence I’m writing now is so happy I can hardly write it in one breath.
As I grow and continue to find my voice as an artist and a human, I hope I never stop trying new things. But I’m giving up on ever writing for Hallmark movies. I’m sure it’s a stable paid writer gig, but my heart will never be in it.
This is how I continue to find hope in a hopeless world. A world we all know is a dumpster fire that’s burning hotter every damn year. I do my best to turn the discomfort into something beautiful. To turn the addiction into wild tales and funny stories. To make the voice in my head that doesn’t like me into characters that we all hate and want to punch. Then making sure someone punches them in the fucking story. I find hope in the small moments. The kindness of a neighbor. Well timed good cups of coffee. Hugs from friends that love me. The smiles of my children. Those small moments that sprout when your hope garden has been barren too long. And I hope those hopeful moments always grow through the sidewalk grit of the authentic reality that I’m trying to write about. But they’re the best I can do. They’re where my heart is truly at, because my heart has been through too much bullshit already, and can’t stand being lied to. Even if I’m the one telling the lies. That’s why I don’t watch Hallmark movies, unless they’re your security blanket. Then maybe I’ll watch one with you. Only if there’s good coffee.
Dan Denton is a former UAW chief steward and union autoworker. He now writes full time here, and in dive bars and alleys everywhere. His next novel, The Dead and the Desperate is available for preorder from Roadside Press.