But then I think…
I’ve been dissecting that phrase for a while now—probing its genesis as my unofficial writer’s moniker, the meaning of the digressive labyrinth implied in that ellipsis, my nearly obsessive use of those three dots to end my sentences.
What I’ve realized is that essayists are a cursed lot. The traits which are so helpful to the essayist—the tendency towards endless digression, a fascination with minutiae, the constant wrestling with the meaning of words, ideas, the self—exist in opposition to the skills that make life flow smoothly. I have many friends and family members who appear devoid of existential angst—of whom I am secretly jealous, even while espousing the finer points of the artist’s life. These people seem to move effortlessly through the world—confronting conundrums, analyzing and making decisions, acting on said decisions and moving on.
While I frequently offer up simple platitudes, and dole out straightforward, apparently helpful advice, this is in fact the opposite of how I myself process the world, how my interior monologue unfolds. Almost every moment of my existence—no matter how seemingly insignificant—sprouts an infinite digression of possibilities. I should run to the store. But there’s probably enough to last until Wednesday anyway. But it’s supposed to be crappy weather on Wednesday, so maybe I should go today. But I don’t get paid until tomorrow—might be cutting it close before that deposit.
But then I think…but then I think…but then I think…
The essayist—or this essayist at least—proceeds in an endless loop of second-guessing, self-doubt, near-paralytic pondering. The burbling fountain that spawns the essay is unfortunately the same wellspring that needs to be capped in order to proceed with day-to-day existence. Without a shut-off switch, the essayist lives in danger of becoming a mind-creature without motion, like the absurd science-fiction brain floating in a suspended animation tank.
I recently came across a passage in Tom McCarthy’s Remainder (a highly-recommended read) in which the protagonist gets caught up in a cycle of interior monologue second-guessing on the sidewalk, which ends with him “jerking back and forth like paused video images do on low quality machines.” Realizing that this performance is being observed, the character enhances the moment with a stereotypical deep-thoughts pantomime so that his onlookers will recognize the legitimacy—and sanity—of this seemingly ridiculous process. That scene stayed with me for days, as it was the perfect rendering of a moment that I frequently find myself trapped in. When trying to dislodge an unhelpful thought, trying to stanch the digressive bleeding so that I can move on with my chosen action, I catch myself—embarrassingly often—shaking my head in disagreement, or actually speaking out loud to banish my cranial interlocutor. It is possible of course that I have always done so, and only recently started to notice the physicality of these scenes. But I worry that this tick, particularly when it occurs in public, might be that outer audio-visual clue to an inherent absurdity.
Luckily for me, having a dog helps with this. Theoretically it is no more sane (or sensible) to carry on a conversation with my dog—who comprehends few words and obeys none. But talking to our pets, like talking to babies or the comatose, is a socially acceptable artifice.
I think—if I may digress further—that is part of my longstanding fascination with politics: the recognition of a system of action fundamentally different from my own. Politics is always about the future—plotting the next big battle, while winning today’s skirmishes. Action and reaction. Combat and coalitions. The future, the horizon somewhere over the next hill, the constant churning forward march towards the next bill, the next debate, the next election. Writing on the other hand tends towards the quiet and contemplative. Mourning yesterday’s defeats. In politics there is only today and tomorrow. The past is just image-management. There is no time to be lost to introspection. Hamlet would be a terrible politician.
There is also the lingering residue of the Midwestern work-ethic, that cranial nag who believes that this “writing”—in all its amorphous glory—is still not a real job. That I should be toiling with greater purpose: farming, or constructing, or using tools of growth and manufacturing to help prop up the GDP in some fashion. It was fine for Socrates to wander about in his toga dispensing wisdom, for Montaigne to spend his middle age ferreted away in the turret of his castle contemplating all of this and nothing. But that won’t do for we humans of the modern age. We live in a commoditized society—the inevitable side effect of market capitalism, which leads to constant interrogations of purpose, demands for justification. What value is there in what you do? What do you create, build, destroy, partake in—and how can we assign a monetary worth to this activity and product? What is the value of your words on a page? The check the publisher is willing to write? The residuals from each Amazon sale? The teaching gig landed with the aid of those published volumes? A deal signed for screenplay adaptation?
I could make the argument—as many others have, and with greater eloquence—for the inherent worth of “art for art’s sake,” the importance of nurturing a creative culture, in fact the necessity of aesthetics as counterbalance to our age of hyper-functionality. But I’ll end instead by noting the unfortunate truth for many of us plying the writer’s trade: that the internet forces of ubiquitous exposure and connectivity that have unleashed the 21st Century writer in all of us are in fact the same ones that have turned us into the new migrant workers—harvesting our words for little or no pay, hoping that exposure of our meagerly-compensated labors will lead to increased name recognition, which will lead to that elusive paid gig. What’s a few hundred words offered up gratis on the vast internet aggregators (HuffPost et al) when your column might—just might—go viral and make you the re-Tweet of the week?
That’s the devil’s bargain many of us confront. Maybe we should go into a different line of work.
But then I think…