For the new year, I share this brilliant essay by David Rakoff. (From his book, Half Empty.) Enjoy.
“Isn’t It Romantic?”
It isn’t that I don’t sympathize with the lassitude. I understand it all too well. Creativity demands an ability to be with oneself at one’s least attractive, that sometimes it’s just easier not to do anything. Writing—I can really only speak to writing here—always, always only starts out as shit: an infant of monstrous aspect; bawling, ugly, terrible, and it stays terrible for a long, long time (sometimes forever). Unlike cooking, for example, where largely edible, if raw, ingredients are assembled, cut, heated, and otherwise manipulated into something both digestible and palatable, writing is closer to having to reverse-engineer a meal out of rotten food. So truly, if you’re already getting laid and have managed to fall in with an attractive and like-minded group without the added indignity of diving face-first into a cesspool every single time you sit down to work, no one understands better than I do why one might not bother.
The rude precariousness of this constant beginner-hood would be enough disincentive without the added mind fuck of how diametrically counter the creative trajectory runs to all other tasks. Among the multitude of reasons that it is better to be a grown-up than a child, just one is the mastery of the physical world. As a child, the distance between desire and execution was a maddeningly unbridgeable chasm. What the mind’s eye pictured and what the body could achieve were altogether different: those stubby safety scissors could only ever cut an edge that was ragged and inelegant; glitter was invariably swallowed up into the pile of carpets as if by malicious intent, like Charlie Brown’s grinning, kite-eating tree; the dried macaroni we were forced to incorporate into designs didn’t have the decency to stay on the page, despite the glue getting everywhere (even at age four I understood this to be the lowest form, the operetta of visual art). Regardless of the medium, everything at that age ended up a muddy, crumb-flecked mess. In John Guare’s play Six Degrees of Separation, the protagonist, Flan, says: “When the kids were little, we went to a parents’ meeting at their school and I asked the teacher why all her students were geniuses in the second grade? … Matisses everyone … What is your secret? And this is what she said: ‘Secret? I don’t have any secret. I just know when to take their drawings away from them.’ ” Rather than a time of wonder and innocence, the all of it was a daily exercise in frustration and chubby-fingered inefficacy.
But then hands grow from smudging little mitts into useful instruments. The soup does not splash up over the rim, the glitter—should one ever be moved to use any—would stay where it was meant to. One progresses from novice to adept with a soothing reliability. Except for writing. Well into adulthood, writing has never gotten easier. It still only ever begins badly, and there are no guarantees that this is not the day when the jig is finally up.
And yet, I don’t for a moment forget that this is not a life of mining coal, waiting tables, or answering someone’s phone for a living. Each morning begins suffused with this sense of privilege, shell-pink and pulsing with new hope. The terrors and agitations of the night fade away and here it is, the clean expanse that is 6:00 AM, free of most everything but promise. Caffeination, evacuation, ablution, through all of which I spool out lovely and eloquent paragraphs in my head. And so to the gym where the lungs take in the new air, the fresh blood courses, and look! Here it is, barely 8:30. You’ll be home and at your desk, scribbling away before other folks have even gotten to work! What grandiose hopes for the deathless prose that will be hoiked up from your depths, taking as evidence the sentences that flow easily through the mind as you do your crunches, the language graceful, propelled forward by the power of its own logic, a Slinky waterfalling effortlessly down a staircase. The toddlers of the day-care center next door are delivered. The carousing teenagers from the high school across the street deposit their cell phones and dime bags into the shrubbery by the stoop and line up for the metal detectors. The computer is turned on, opening up to the file left off the day before. Today will be good, you think. Not like the previous day’s lack of industry, a shameful waste of phone calls, e-mail, snacking, and onanism.
Yes, it is all about today. But first, the crossword. And what does Paul Krugman have to say? Oh, that Gail Collins. Love her. E-mail, has it been checked in the last forty seconds? And now a snack. Friend Patty calls. She can’t settle, either. Midday already? The toddlers, now screaming, are picked up from next door. Sit down and write a sentence for God’s sake. One fucking sentence, it won’t kill you. It almost kills you. Funny thing about words. Regarded individually or encountered in newspapers or books (written by other people), they are as lovely and blameless as talcum-sweet babies. String them together into a sentence of your own, however, and these cooing infants become a savage gang straight out of Lord of the Flies. A sullen coven with neither conscience nor allegiance. It will take the civilizing influence of repeated revision to whip them into shape, an exhausting prospect. Time for the late-afternoon power nap (“Ten minutes is all I need, and then I’m good for the rest of the day!” you brag to anyone who cares to listen). You rise, refreshed, your sense of creative optimism restored—or it would be if it wasn’t for the maniac on the street crackling that cellophane wrapper. Who the hell does he think he is? Stand at the window and scan the sidewalk like a crazy person. Uh-oh, here comes that woman with her schnauzers again, animals that exist in a constant state of high barking dudgeon. Log on to that dog-breed website (again) to see how long the average life span is for such a creature. How much Xanax crushed up and mixed into some ground beef would it take to … never mind. Sit back down. And nothing. Whither flown the clarity of those morning insights? How many times must it be demonstrated to you that that interval of genius is as thin and fragile as the skin of an onion, if not downright illusory? And yet you never rush to the desk to get the pearls down on paper because in the moment of thought, they seem incapable of dissipation. So immortal, so solid in their reasoning, like those musings just before dropping off to sleep. Why disturb this almost-slumber by writing? The Brooklyn Bridge doesn’t crumble simply because one shifts one’s gaze from it. Of course I’ll remember something this obviously brilliant in the morning, only to wake the next day without the remotest idea. Might as well finish eating that dried mango.
Oh, Google, how does one make soap?
The teenagers leave school, a good forty minutes of profanity (as comic genius Jackie Hoffman has observed, “It’s all ‘What the shit the fuck you are!’ And the boys are even worse”). The street goes quiet again. You can see the custodial staff cleaning the classrooms. The streetlights come on. They’d look so pretty against the sapphire of the early-evening sky if they didn’t signify the hours you’ve wasted. If you were any kind of writer, you’d stay in and do battle, wrest the time back and make the day mean something more than the nothing it is turning out to be. But you are not any kind of writer. Today has proven as much. As did yesterday and odds are tomorrow will attest to the same. Pregnant with Potential has turned to Freighted with Failure. And so another day fails to meet its promise and has spun out into procrasturbatory entropy. You power down the computer. Just before the screen goes dark, the sentence you wrote chuckles and says, “Until tomorrow, maestro.” Its tone is contemptuous, vaguely threatening, and deeply reminiscent of somebody’s voice you can’t quite place (three guesses whose). You will see friends and they will ask after your day and you will complain, charmingly (although not nearly as charmingly as you think), about what you haven’t accomplished. Sometimes, it’s just easier to go to dinner. Although, when you wake briefly at 4:00 AM in an anxious fury with yourself, you will know it is also exponentially so much more difficult to have gone to dinner.
The truest depiction of the writing life remains Nicolas Cage in the movie Adaptation, crippled by fear of inadequacy into near-complete inaction, opting to masturbate for the umpteenth time that day. His legs are the only thing visible on-screen, shaking, defeated, his off-camera body working its way to a sad and dribbling (anti)climax, the only thing he will produce the whole day.
— David Rakoff, “Isn’t It Romantic?”