Thursday, September 12, 2013

800 Words: The Perils of Having Things to Do

I have no energy to write these days. I write all the time, be it on facebook or emails or on attempted posts on here which I begin almost every day but never seem to finish. I’m under no misimpression about the problem - the problem is that I socialize too much. As my outward stimulation grows ever busier, the stillness necessary for prolonged writing becomes ever harder to attain. I envy any writer who can sit at his desk every day and wait for inspiration to come like a store clerk waits for a customer. But my mind has never worked like that, and I think that such a mechanical process ultimately takes something out of the artisan who assumes it. A creator who has a set way of creating will probably create a set product. What’s needed is to go out into the world, experience as much of life as possible, and then steal the time, the money, the very thoughts, necessary in order to create something worthwhile. Hopefully, all that accumulated life experience will appear on paper. It is the tension of such a lifestyle that creates the tensile strength a piece needs. When I quickly make a list in my head of ‘great writers’ who holed themselves up in seclusion (in part) for the sake of their own productivity - Proust, Flaubert, Montaigne, Philip Roth, Pynchon, Thoreau, Dickinson - there are two things which strike me:

1. The majority of them are either New Yorkers or Parisians - or at very least adopted for part of their lives to those cities. It’s quite possible that there’s something about the overstimulation of hyper-urban life which provoked them to write, but perhaps it also made necessary a retreat into seclusion in order to hear the words that were shouting to get out.

2. When I look at this list, there are only two that number in my personal favorites. I got to roughly page 4 of Madame Bovary before I realized that I’d be reading this level of over-writing for another 400 pages. I persist with Proust, because just as I’m ready to give up there’s a truly gorgeous passage amidst an endless profusion of boredom. Pynchon’s constant parodies don’t settle very well if you can’t follow him in the extent of his erudition, and I can’t. Thoreau is just insane, and Dickinson seems to become more trivial every time I look at her poetry. The only two which provoke genuine affection in me are Montaigne and Philip Roth. But even among these two, I have to admit that Roth’s huge output - at least among the part I’ve read - has better and worse books, better and worse chapters, better and worse characters, and even the best are prone to huge bouts of cruelty. If Roth wrote a few less books, he might have written some better ones. And Montaigne, as intimate and humane as his essays seem, can also show a shocking lack of compassion at times. Perhaps that’s simply the 21st century reading into thoughts set down in the 16th, but I still can’t quite get over certain passages. In every case listed above, there is something almost mechanical about their production - as though they used all that time they had for writing as a means to drain the vitality out of what they wrote (Flaubert), or to publish reams of subpar writing among their great stuff that should never be published (Roth, Proust… heresy I know...), or to publish thoughts and attitudes to life that were simply wrong (everybody else).

But it still can’t be denied - every chance to go out and see friends, to take on a more interesting job, to try to have love affairs, takes something essential out of any writer, be they professional or a mere amateur like me. Look at so many of the great fiction writers - or at least some of my favorites. Tolstoy, the high aristocrat and compulsive sinner, wrote two meganovels about the aristocracy before burning out and becoming an insane Christian who renounced all aspirations to which a peasant couldn't aspire. Chaucer, the medieval bureaucrat, left a note upon his death retracting all his secular work. Saul Bellow, the fiction writer who doubled as a public intellectual, worked his way through five wives and became a bitter old reactionary in his dotage. Stefan Zweig, the public intellectual who took it upon himself to be the nerve center of European discourse between the two world wars, ended his life in ignominious Brazillian exile and made a suicide pact with his new wife. Chekhov is to my mind the greatest model of a writer who experienced the world head on and put his findings into what he wrote, but he had to juggle his writing with the demands of being a doctor for thousands of peasants and making time for his revolving door of mistresses - who can doubt that having so little time to himself was what killed him in his mid-40’s?

Neither I nor anybody else should view these greats as models for how to write better. To even bring them up in the context of me is laughable. A giant is a giant, an ordinary guy is an ordinary guy. But no matter what your size, you are subject to the same human foibles and problems. And the biggest problem for any writer, any artist, any human being, is balance. Anybody can come up with a worldview which carries them through every situation - be it religious, or political, or cultural, or social, we all carry with us dogmatic beliefs to which we hold onto as best we can like the floor of a boat during a storm. If it’s required, there’s nothing wrong with a bedrock beliefs which carry you through life better than you can carry yourself. The only problem with such unshakeable beliefs is that you’ll go through life being shielded by them from so much of what life has to offer you.

It is so terribly hard for a writer to convey life as it’s truly experienced. It requires not only a knowledge of such experience, but also that you carry the memory of it from the time you experienced it until the moment you place that experience on the page, and then all through the editing process. Life ‘in the moment’ is so much easier, and those artists who work in ‘present’ artforms like popular musicians, dancers, and actors get to have more fun. Their goals don’t necessarily require less of them (psychologically, they probably require more), but the ‘art’ of their jobs is not nearly as elusive. What’s required of them is, mostly, to be fully present in the moment of creation - the moment after it matters not at all to their work. Writers, composers, directors, painters, they all are demanded to work far more within a fourth dimension, in which they must carry over the intense experiences of a moment fully in the past to create an equally vivid present. It requires far more contemplation and the ability to slow every action down to a crawl. The more ‘present’ you experience - the more time you spend in the fast lane of ‘reality’ getting the real time reactions of other people, the harder it is to slow your mind down to analyse all of those interactions for what they are, and the harder it becomes imagine all those same people’s reactions to what you write when you confess your thoughts to a blank computer screen.

For the second time since I left in the fall of 2011, I went back to the house in Bethany Beach this weekend where I spent an entire summer in 2011 - the scene of the crime where this blog was first hatched. It was a perfectly lovely weekend, with amazing weather, good food, good friends, and lots of liquor. But what I missed, deeply, was the seclusion which that place once provided me - the quiet of a lakeside setting where nothing could disturb you for six hours at a time. That moment in 2011 - when I realized I could write long essays on Jon Stewart, Johnny Cash, Isaac Bashevis Singer, Uncle Vanya, The Rules of the Game, The Simpsons, and The Orioles - is not to be repeated. It could never be. It was a once-in-a-lifetime flowering of a person who’d accumulated nearly thirty years worth of life experience, and finally had the time and space to write about it. It was the first explosion of words which every writer must experience, words that were simply biding their time to get out onto a page. But once the summer was over, there was the ever-present question - how do you keep this flowering going?

Ever since, this blog has been a series of attempts to answer that question. In the two years since, I think a lot of work has appeared on this page which I have every right to be proud of. There’s plenty of which I’m not proud too, but I’m damn proud of the fact that I’ve kept going, and will keep going for a long time yet.

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