In Rich Homie Quan’s 2013 classic, “Type of Way,” he joins a three thousand-year tradition of literary recluses in a single rhyming couplet: “I got a hide away, and I go there sometimes, to give my mind a break/ I find a way, to still get through the struggle, what I’m tryna say.” The music video features Rich Homie Quan in a blend of scenarios, ranging from a coffee date with a lady-friend to an alley packed with attendant, peripherally-rich homies. The first bit of the couplet actually starts while RHQ is on the date, and on “I go there sometimes” we see him getting into his canary-yellow BMW with his lady-friend. The next shot is RHQ by himself, rapping shirtless in front of an abandoned apartment block. He goes there “to give [his] mind a break,” he explains, pointing to his temple. The next shot is of Rich Homie Quan with his boys in the alley, “get[ting] through the struggle,” the one he has only just escaped from.
The song is, by conventional wisdom, simple and pleasurable pop rap; RHQ hits all of the genre’s lyrical tenets (sexual prowess and promiscuity, immense wealth acquired through (dis)honest struggle, etc) and the beat is full of synth and trap, with a swaggy horn line on top. Upon closer examination, though, there is a serious tension in both the lyrics and the video between the private and the public, a tension resonant with the canon of world literature. Most of the “ways” people “feel” about RHQ are related to his material and romantic success—these people, by his estimation, are jealous. Homie admits to feeling “some type of way” himself, about the girl he’s with, about the haters and homies around him. While RHQ references being “thankful for life” he also “go[es] through hell” to get and keep what he wants. The only way to do that is, of course, more success, more writing, more rapping, more individual effort, which only generates more haters feeling some type of way.
While I find the separation of Quan’s romantic life from his homosocial life fascinating, it’s not quite to the point of his reclusivity. It’s the accumulation of feeling, of his feeling and the feeling of others for him, that necessitates giving his “mind a break.” One article by Edward Platt about “creative” suggested that the reason writers especially are often unhappy or disturbed is that they are “always working.” Cross-reference Quan’s line, second verse: “Ain’t the hardest man working (I know I am).”
The article (“The Tortured Genius Just Can’t Help It,” from The Daily Beast) makes reference to a fascinating study by Andreas Fink:
“A few months back, Andreas Fink at the University of Graz in Austria found a relationship between the ability to come up with an idea and the inability to suppress the precuneus while thinking. The precuneus is the area of the brain that shows the highest levels of activation during times of rest and has been linked to self-consciousness and memory retrieval. It is an indicator of how much one ruminates or ponders oneself and one’s experiences.”
In a way, writers and other creatives can’t relax because they are always relaxing. Or, more nearly, are never relaxing: reflection and synthesis are the job, so neurologically they are always working. Even the most mundane or pleasurable aspects of daily life are potential material for a project, can never be just what they are. So we see Rich Homie Quan forming his song and his video “from the clay of his life,” as Wolfe would say, but with some measure of distress. Certainly the Tortured Genius and the Reclusive Writer are first cousins or even siblings. RHQ, like his predecessors, struggles over the writing itself. However, a neurological explanation neglects the role of the writer’s outer world, its history, and how it makes said writer feel.
If we trace the writer back to the beginning of the canon, we reach Homer, perhaps the first RW (Reclusive Writer). There’s the legend of Homer as a blind wandering sage, but I see this as a Romanticization (more on the Romantics later) of a fairly basic social phenomenon. Literacy was non-existent in the Greek Dark Ages when Homer told (orally) his stories, and so naturally the things he was doing—long, complex narratives, with similes, motifs, character arcs—were weird. The struggle for survival consumed daily life, and such painstaking devotion to entertainment and elucidation would have been perceived as both strange and wonderful. Or dangerous. Any writing, for a very long time in history, was profoundly weird by virtue of its rarity and apparent impracticality. Often (and perhaps more so the older the society/civilization) creation and literacy were mixed up in the sacred. In the Middle Ages it was almost exclusively monks who wrote, often with the inspiration of the Holy Spirit. Saint Hildegard of Bingen, for example, was set apart as a visionary (and poet) touched in the head by “holy fire.” A more archetypal example is the idea of the Muse and the artist/intellectual; the communion between them seems private and even vaguely sexual. The recent explosion in literacy has de-necessitated this exclusion. Though there is still the idea of the nerd, of intellectualism in general being set apart (especially in America) from the common or working man, the RW becomes in this respect less of a necessary social phenomenon and more of a self-perpetuating myth.
If we may return to the Tortured/Sole Genius archetype for a moment, I would link its existence to Romanticism. This is the period, after all, that “created Shakespeare,” transfigured him from a solid troupe member and well-liked writer into the solitary genius and sole originator of every scrap of writing he was vaguely attached to. Similar heroes were made of Byron, Shelley, Blake (though they made heroes of themselves within the era, contributed to their own myths). Homer was “created” in a similar way to Shakespeare during this time, although perhaps we can give some of the credit to Renaissance intellectuals and their Classical revival, as well as earlier Roman “histories” of “his” (if Homer indeed existed as a singular male person) life. The artist-set-apart is less a result of necessary societal estrangement and more a thing for its own sake, through the increase in literacy over time and the profusion of said myth. It exists to some extent in every literary community in the world, but, as I hinted at before, takes on a special form and significance in American (United-Statesian) literature and literary culture.
The late David Foster Wallace perhaps best summarized the cognitive dissonance of the RW in a 1997 interview with Charlie Rose. “Writing for publication is a very weird thing because part of you—part of you is a nerd and you want to sit in libraries, you don’t want to be bothered and you’re very shy. And another part of you is the worst ham of all time. ‘Look at me. Look at me. Look at me.’ And you have fantasies about writing something that makes everybody drop to one knee, you know, like Al Jolson or something.” Tremendously significant here is the reference to Al Jolson, the early-to-midcentury singer and actor. The goal (or one dichotomous half of it) for AJ/the RW here is to achieve a celebrity almost unrelated to creation. That Al Jolson often performed in blackface and was a considerable “ham” only exacerbates the example celebrity’s disparity with (reticent, sensitive) nerdiness. DFW wasn’t known for being particularly reclusive, at least not in any consistent way. Consistency is perhaps where problems begin to arise. A nerd—which is what a writer has to be relative to even the most literate public—isn’t well-suited to the spotlight in the first place. And of course we have this fascination with somebody who has what every “sane” American wants and isn’t happy—prestige, attention, (some) money.
In fact, the RW is at once most prevalent and perilous in American society. There is “extra” reclusion (in addition to intellectualism itself, in addition to the Romantic ideal) in the oldest American myth of all: American individualism. Despite our ingrained and national distaste for nerds, what could be more American than making something by yourself, without the help, and perhaps with the disapproval of, society and government? This combines easily with a work ethic originating perhaps from the Puritans and Winthrop’s City on a Hill but that has also been co-opted by, or extant in, every immigrant group since. When the Abrahamic stipulation for modesty falls away in the ensuing secularization of American culture, we get a picture that pretty fairly represents the storm of influences creating the modern (up to post-modern) American RW.
Hemingway is perhaps the greatest example of the contradiction of the American RW, involved as he was in a decades-long game of slap-and-kiss with the American public. On the one hand you had the hunter, the womanizer, the stoic portrait(ist) of American manhood. On the other was a neurotic drunk with a changeable heart who “hid away” not once but again and again. Indeed, Hem was often compelled to run away from his runaways. He left America for WWI to escape his mother, traveled to Spain to escape postwar Paris, and ran to Cuba to escape Key West, which was itself the Southernmost point in the United States and an escape from Midwestern monotony. Meanwhile the critics kept up their teasing game with wildly fluctuating reviews: he had It then he didn’t then he did again, maybe. Part of this had to do with Hemingway’s progressively deteriorating mental state, but the myth fed the illness and vice versa. His devotion to craft clashed completely with his need to be recognized. JD Salinger, who wrote one of the most personal (and now most maligned, as gradeschool whining claptrap) books of his time found that he couldn’t handle the thing his own analog, Holden Caulfield, wished for: “What really knocks me out is a book that, when you’re all done reading it, you wish the author that wrote it was a terrific friend of yours and you could call him up on the phone whenever you felt like it.” There’s a certain cheeseball romanticism that says a writer who bares his soul like Salinger did, like Hem did, like DFW did is too sensitive for the world at large. So many people came to talk to JD about it that he locked himself in a bunker for forty years. They had some idea that he had the answers, like Holden thought his writers did, when the reality was that the writer who wrote that line was only marginally less confused, a little more self-aware about the state of things.
And so the teasing relationship we have with our writers becomes bidirectional; sometimes these nerds get what they want from us. They get our love, maybe our hate, certainly our attention. We feel some type of way about them, and this in turn has them feeling some type of way. They feel they have an audience to please. Some handle this new pressure. Those with more popular appeal become tabloid fascinations (Stephen King, Stephanie Meyer, JK Rowling). The literati become part of the circle of writer celebrities, celebrities to a certain wealthy well-educated crowd of readers. They go on Oprah. They go teach at Princeton.
The “best” recluses never get involved with the public in the first place, except through their writing; they never experience the confusion solitary creation and widespread interaction create. Thomas Pynchon hasn’t been photographed since he was a student; he can go and get a bagel, because nobody knows what he looks like. Emily Dickinson had by all accounts a happy quiet life, writing poems and playing with the neighborhood children. On the other side you have aforementioned popular writers JK Rowling, Stephanie Meyer, Stephen King, authors who seem to have no real problem with their status as public figures. The distaste for publicity seems on first glance to be a more literary (than pop) phenomenon but surely many literary writers love their roles as public pedants (see Franzen, etc.) at conferences or on social media.
Non-American writers seem to handle the balance of reclusion and celebrity much better and less tragically than (US) Americans. Nobody knows (Italian novelist) Elena Ferrante’s real name, and she may be due for a Nobel Prize within the next couple of years. Many Latin American authors of the twentieth century performed gracefully as public intellectuals and even political agitators, perhaps in the same way that Hemingway wished he could have. Europeans in general seem to like and care about their public intellectuals more than we do—the nerd and public are less dichotomous.
Rich Homie Quan, before he raps about hideaways and mind-vacations, says in the same verse: “Go through hell cause I care.” He’s talking about a lady-friend, but I think that this line could apply just as well as the rest of “Type of Way” to the writer’s craft—to the old-school American (Puritan) work ethic, to the inability to suppress the precuneus. One difficulty that the writer faces, the one that drives her to reclusion, is obligation. There may be other stuff floating around it, but finally a writer has an obligation to writing. The shit must be good shit; good shit is good in and of itself. This is fine. This is, by all accounts, the important part of writing. The struggle comes from having a public to interact with—one that may hate you, love you, misunderstand you, see right through you. There is nothing stranger here than a nerd getting attention, and feeling some type of way about it.