Filling In A Form
by Julian Gough
illustrator Clément Louis
Answering this questionnaire is now mandatory for all New York Times freelance writers and videographers. You may not use any other part of this site until you have answered all the questions and clicked “Submit” ... The questionnaire is a new step arising from our Ethical Journalism policy ... Please answer these questions as completely as you can in the spaces provided.
Seriously? As completely as I can? I’m a novelist. I once wrote twenty pages about a piece of string. It wasn’t even a long piece of string. I could hit 90,000 words on this thing.
OK. Ten questions. Let’s go.
1. Please list your other current employers, whether full time or part time.
I have no employers. Indeed, I became a writer to avoid having employers. So, I sit in a room that never receives the sun, making up stories about people who don’t exist. If there wasn’t a publishing industry, I would have been locked up since childhood (but in what way would that be different from this life?).
2. For what other companies have you worked, as an employee or as a consultant, in the last three years?
None. But that is not a satisfactory answer. Oh, maybe to you, but it isn’t to me, and I’m the writer here. I hold the pen. Yes, I’ve gone back to paper. I spent an hour filling in your online form, online. I hit send. It erased everything. Then, only then, it told me it had timed me out and to please try again. Or as Beckett would have put it, had he written code for the New York Times, “Submit form. Fail. Submit again. Fail again. Fail better.”
We are all judged—by ourselves, our readers, and, possibly, God—on every act of writing. But forms want us to reduce and simplify ourselves, to contort ourselves, to squeeze our selves into boxes. We should pause and think, before agreeing to that. Because after a while, we are what we pretend to be. Every form is an autobiography. And to trim yourself to fit a form that inquires into your very ethics, into the bowels of you—well, you may as well trim your very flesh.
So let me explain why I have not worked as an employee or as a consultant in the last three years.
Twenty-eight years ago, I worked for two days in Supermacs of Eyre Square, Galway. Supermacs are the McDonalds of Ireland, and the Eyre Square branch is the spiritual heart of their empire. I turned up on the second day merely to check that I hadn’t been hallucinating the horror of the first. Had the impression of a timeless, endless hell been caused by inhaling fat fumes? Nope. It had been caused by selling my time to people who didn’t value it. So that was pretty much it between me and paid employment. I vowed I would sell no more in the market the irreplaceable hours of my youth.
There were times when I weakened. The next summer, I spent five days working for a charity. As day one progressed, I learned many things. I learned that poor people were far more generous than rich people. I learned that I was not going to be good enough at this job to earn the commission which was supposed to be added to your basic. I learned that—after the team of four and their supervisor had been paid—none of the money I collected was going to go to charity. By day two, I was fantasising throwing myself from the moving car as it sped from small town to smaller town. By day three, I was walking as rapidly as possible through Ballyhaunis and out the other side, to lie in a cornfield and read James Joyce’s Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man in the summer sunshine. (“Very poor response this side of town,” I said, on my return to the car, with no money for the supervisor.)
My subjects at university—English and Philosophy—were carefully chosen. I intended to render myself officially unemployable. (The phrase “something to fall back on” has always conjured, for me, a vision of spiked railings.) Not that I looked for a job. No point. The value I put on an hour of my life was more than anyone was willing to pay me. And so I signed on the dole for ten years, and learned to write. I improved, slowly. Stuff got published. I earned enough to sign off the dole. I’ve been surviving, while writing, for almost a decade (though some years I don’t earn a living, and get evicted, and you don’t want to know what I have to do to survive.) Anyway, the years fly by. I write what I want. Books come out. Then I send you guys at the New York Times something funny that I wrote for pleasure. You like it, print it. Great. And by a commodious vicus of recirculation, I am brought back to my starting point: if I want to get paid for the work I have already done, I must fill in a form, again, that has already carelessly destroyed an hour of my life. Write something I don’t want to write.
This makes me sound like a prick. No, let’s strengthen that sentence. I am a prick. Who am I to think I’m so special I can’t bear to fill in a form? When billions spend their lives bearing, somehow, every day, the unbearable, just to stay alive, just to feed their kids. Sweating at the coalface, a mile under China, in the dark. Scrabbling deep into rat-raddled garbage dumps in Africa, for chunks of our junk. Renting out the holes of their body to pig-eyed drunks in Russia. Watching senior management give PowerPoint presentations, in America’s former wild west. So, this ethics form has established I’m a prick. Well, at least we’re getting somewhere.
As for being a consultant, I don’t even know what a consultant does. I know they get paid for it, but I’m not sure what “it” is. This could be a trans-Atlantic translation problem. In the US, “consultant” appears to be a euphemism for prostitute, and “consultancy” some convoluted way of rendering bribes legal, so I appreciate your ethics questionnaire would need to ask about it. But no, I’ve never knowingly “consulted.”
3. What sort of volunteer work do you do regularly, if any, and for whom? (Please include any public relations, advocacy or advisory board involvement.)
The only work of any kind that I’ve done voluntarily, and regularly, over the years, has been chiefly related to helping women achieve orgasm. I can’t really answer your supplementary question, “... and for whom?” as that would be an invasion of the privacy of others.
Look, I can understand that you might be irritated. Let me try to explain.
I am a writer. I’ll be dead soon. So will you. So we don’t have much time—to think, write, live. My life is practically devoted to not filling in forms. Because I do not wish to fill in forms I didn’t have health insurance, or the free medical card to which I was entitled, in my twenties and thirties. What did I do if I got sick? I went to bed, and stayed there till I got better. And I wrote in bed. Wrote what I wished. So you understand my feelings when, standing between a piece of writing that I wrote for the joy of it, and getting paid for that piece of writing, is a ten-part form questioning my ethics. Look, my ethics are terrible. I’m a writer! I’m a shit! I’m a HUMAN BEING!
4. Do you do any work paid or unpaid in politics or government? Have you done any lobbying of governmental bodies?
OK; I’ve never told anyone this. It’s hideously embarrassing.
When I was seventeen, Ireland celebrated the establishment of its new postal service with a penny post day: send anything, anywhere in Ireland, for a penny. I posted thirteen letters. One was to our Taoiseach (or, if you prefer, Prime Minister), Charles Haughey.
Charles J. Haughey was a fascinating, highly corrupt politician. With his gun smuggling, compulsive swearing, Charvet shirts, yacht, stud farm and private island, he was more a Bond villain than the democratic leader of a small, bankrupt Republic. He’d just trashed the Constitution, again, by reappointing the President (a member of his party), without an election. I sent him two sheets of toilet paper, and a signed note saying “Dear Mr. Haughey, here is your free sample of Andrex Gold, for the better class of arsehole.” I wrote my name and address very carefully and clearly, with a kind of exultant terror. Would the police turn up? Soldiers?
I realise now that nothing was ever going to happen. I was just a rural Irish teenager being a self-righteous dick. But, then, I was seventeen, in an age of political paranoia, dirty war, car bombs, assassinations. I knew Charles Haughey had an enemies list. He was our Nixon; as minister for Finance, he’d smuggled guns for the IRA. It’s only in the last few years we discovered that, as Taoiseach, he was secretly taking millions in cash off businessmen, bugging the phones of journalists ... Back then, it was impossible to know where his limits were. But one day his enemies list would be revealed, and it would be a roll call of honour. I wanted to be on it. Is trying to persuade your nation’s leader to put you on his enemies list “lobbying of governmental bodies”? Your call.
5. Do you have any financial investments or financial ties that may limit your ability to cover specific topics free of conflict, and if so, what are the topics?
I own a second-hand bicycle. I feel that my objectivity would be compromised were I to cover the second-hand bicycle market in Berlin, as the impulse to “talk up my book” might prove overwhelming. Best not to put that temptation in my path.
6. Although we don’t regulate the activities of spouses, partners or immediate family members of our contributors, do any of their professional or personal involvements or any of their financial investments or ties make certain topics inappropriate for you, and if so, what are the topics?
I am pleased to hear that you don’t regulate the activities of spouses, partners or immediate family members. Neither do I. Trust, that’s the thing. But do some of their personal involvements make certain topics inappropriate for me? Hmmm, tricky. I guess my sister’s ongoing affair with the Dalai Lama ...
That’s not true. I lied about the Dalai Lama. And I don’t have a sister. But that’s the only lie on this form. Although I do have a brother. And he has met the Dalai Lama a few times, in Ireland. And England. And India. And been taught by the Dalai Lama. My brother does work in a Buddhist retreat centre called Jampa Ling, in county Cavan, in Ireland.
Would you like to regulate the activities of my brother? Freud would argue that by denying you do it—when nobody had accused you of doing it—you’re revealing you’d like to do it.
But what if my brother had an affair with the Dalai Lama. What topics would that make inappropriate for me? Tibetan Buddhism? Or sex? Let’s just hope they can both restrain themselves.
7. Have you accepted any free trips, junkets or press trips in the last two years? Have you accepted any substantial free merchandise or discounts from people we might cover? If so, from whom did you accept them?
There is nothing wrong with these questions. It’s not you, it’s me. Of course I still love you. What is a junket? I have been flown to quite a few literary festivals in the past two years, which is a strike against me. But I still didn’t have enough money to pay the rent when I got home, which is a good thing from your point of view, I assume. (Poverty demonstrates, if not innocence of corruption, at least a reassuring ineptitude for it.)
In Geneva, when the organiser heard that I’d been evicted for non-payment of rent the year before, he went to a cash machine and took out three crisp green hundred euro notes of his own money, and gave them to me. He said he could get the sponsor to cover it. I don’t know if that was true. I think he was just a very nice man. His name is Denis McClean. But if you were to ask me to write about him, I have to tell you, it would influence me. In Croatia, they gave me a free mug. It was sponsored by Franck, a very well known brand in the former Yugoslavia. I am probably disqualified from writing about drinking coffee in Croatia, Bosnia, Serbia and Montenegro. This is a shame, it’s the only thing I want to write about.
Substantial free merchandise? A very nice American gave me a pair of bright yellow jeans in Mauerpark last year. Decluttering his life, on his way to India. I wear them a lot. They are sturdy, but I’m not sure if I’d go so far as to say substantial.
I’m not trying to make life difficult. I am compelled to make life difficult. The difference is subtle, I’ll admit, but it’s real.
I’m what, halfway through this?
I really do want to finish this, and invoice you, and get paid. I’m now two months behind on the rent. I’ve spent over a year filling in this form, writing in the gaps between novels and stories and films. I’ve thrown away entire drafts where the tone wasn’t right. Versions that were too heavy. Versions that were too light. Oh Christ’s sweet tears, yes, I wish I were finished. But these questions raise so many questions. This next one, for instance:
8. Has anything you’ve written later resulted in a published editor’s note or retraction for deliberate falsehood or plagiarism or become the subject of a lawsuit involving allegations of deliberate falsehood? (If yes, please include details about the publication and your role in the article or story. If a lawsuit, please describe the disposition of the case.)
Has anyone ever answered yes? Do you think the kind of person whose writing is already the subject of a lawsuit involving allegations of deliberate falsehood would have a problem writing the word “no” on a form? This is an American thing, right? Because, as a nation, you don’t seem to know how to deal with liars, with sociopaths, with people who want to harm you. Whenever I fly to America, and the flight attendant hands me the standard US immigration form, I am most moved by the breathless, eager innocence of this question ...
“Do you intend to engage in the United States in: Espionage?”
I’ve a theory that Americans most clearly reveal their sunny view of human nature when they are trying hardest to be tough. Here’s another piece of US Government prose that really moves me:
“In addition to using the confinement boxes alone, you also would like to introduce an insect into one of the boxes with Zubaydah. As we understand it, you plan to inform Zubaydah that you are going to place a stinging insect into the box, but you will actually place a harmless insect in the box, such as a caterpillar.”
-Memo for John Rizzo, from Office of Legal Council, US Department of Justice, August 1st 2002.
How sweet, how feeble this is—the bravado of a child —when compared to standard Soviet techniques like the Secret Brand. (As Solzhenitsyn calmly described it in The Gulag Archipelago, “a ramrod heated over a Primus stove would be thrust up their anal canal.”)
Yes, the American government shows not its evil nature but its hopeless, helpless goodness in its memos and its forms, as it struggles to put together gender-neutral, multi-racial torture teams, open to the disabled. Yet, tick by tick, box by box, they eventually find, to their surprise, that they are stuffing real people into real boxes.
But I worry about you, New York Times, when you start to sound like your government, forcing us to perform this meaningless security theatre. (“Are you a liar?” / “No.”) Newspapers should be the opposite of government.
Let me make it clear, I’m not mocking you, or your form, or America here. Indeed, there is such innocence revealed on American forms that, reading them, I want to cry. I’m just trying to push through the boredom of a form, into the light.
After David Foster Wallace hung himself, in Claremont, California in 2008, a typewritten note was found in his papers. It concerned the novel he was working on, a novel set in the IRS, home of the badly designed, innocent, All-American, soul crushing form. (“If you are claiming an exemption amount for housing individuals displaced by a Midwestern disaster, enter the amount from Form 8914, line 2 for 2008, or line 6 for 2009” -from IRS Form 1040X.)
David Foster Wallace’s note said:
“Bliss—a-second-by-second joy and gratitude at the gift of being alive, conscious—lies on the other side of crushing, crushing boredom. Pay close attention to the most tedious thing you can find (Tax Returns, Televised Golf) and, in waves, a boredom like you’ve never known will wash over you and just about kill you. Ride these out, and it’s like stepping from black and white into color. Like water after days in the desert. Instant bliss in every atom.”
The day after David Foster Wallace hung himself, editors emailed asking me to write about him. I wanted to write about him, so that worked out fine. His suicide paid my rent. And now I see his book’s out, incomplete. They’ve called it The Pale King. Good name.
David Foster Wallace left a list of possible epigraphs for his novel. I like the editor’s choice. It’s from “Borges and I,” a prose poem by Frank Bidart: “We fill pre-existing forms and when we fill them we change them and are changed.”
9. Do you have a blog or a personal web site, and if so, would you please give its web address?
Sure. I’ve both. The personal website is here: www.juliangough.com. And the blog is part of the website, here: www.juliangough.com/journal. Does the New York Times consider Twitter accounts to be blogs? Just to be safe, here: www.twitter.com/juliangough.
Let there be no secrets between us. OK, one more box.
10. Additional Comments:
No. I’ve no additional comments. Or rather, if I started it might come out as a scream, and it might not stop, and you wouldn’t like that and I wouldn’t like that, and the form would have trouble accommodating it. It’s hard to keep the scream inside the box.
So, we’re finished. I’ll just paste this into the ten boxes.
And now all I have to do is press the button marked “Submit.” And it isn’t kidding.
And now I can invoice you. And now I am free.