The Curse of the Essayist

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…

Introduction: Stalking Sven Birkerts

I have been admonishing myself to start a blog for a decade now. Build the platform, find a space for my writing, something more visceral, more immediate than the often-interminable wait between writing and publication. The fact that I am finally starting one in the year 2014 is probably another essay in itself (for another time). I’ve had the title of this venture—But Then I Think—stuck in my head for several years now, the residue of a montage of café conversations I had during my three-year MFA stint in Tucson. I am finally taking the plunge with Stalking Sven Birkerts because this particular moment so perfectly captured the essence of the perpetually self-correcting mind that spawned said catchphrase. Welcome, and thanks for reading.

 

February 26th 2014

O’Hare International Airport

Having spent the past weekend immersed in Sven Birkerts—Time in the Art of Memoir, Other Walks, The Art of Attention essay in Aeon magazine, his Tin House interview—it was of course inevitable that the first person I would see when walking up to my gate in O’Hare would be Mr. Birkerts. For a moment I imagined that I’d conjured him, not literally, but that through immersion my mind had begun to visualize the subject of my attentions, much in the same way we often dream in the web of life-minutiae with which we fall asleep. I expected Mr. Birkerts to have quickly morphed back into his non-Birkerts self, just some random literary-looking bearded and bespectacled gent. But the mirage held. In fact, I noted the suave wooden cane on which he was resting one hand—an un-posed gesture that added a touch of panache and also gelled nicely in an identity-verification sense with his recent essay digression instigated by a bout of physical therapy.

There were seats open on either side of Mr. Birkerts and for a moment I imagined just sitting down and introducing myself as the guy who had, ironically enough “just finished writing a profile of you for the Ohio University Lit Fest brochure.” A simple enough thought—but that spare dozen feet of semi-open space between us was in fact a minefield of my insecurities—the same irrational fears of ridiculous public rejections that have left me always at the periphery, kicking myself afterwards for my concrete feet. I thought back to my pre-dawn packing for this AWP journey, in which I held two Birkerts tomes in my hand, neither of which made the final cut because my suitcase was over capacity and my carry-on shoulder bag was stuffed with things I “had” to read for class. I crouched down amongst the O’Hare crowd and opened the front flap of my suitcase, fighting reality, trying to will myself back in time to the moment that I had attempted to stuff The Other Walks in amongst the jeans and socks before giving up in frustration. “Try a little harder,” I plead with that past self of six hours ago. “Trust me—there’s always space.” This realization—that I would have to add “oh, I totally was going to bring one of your books, but you know—full suitcase” to the conversation further stiffened my growing certainty that an attempted introduction would go terribly wrong.

At some point Mr. Birkerts must have noticed the tall, angular guy in the long-sleeve green safari button-up (my lucky flight shirt) was staring at him. I kept glancing over at him, willing myself to take action. And I thought of how I’d tried to look up contact info—just an email address even—so I could maybe ask a couple questions to guide my profile, and then gave up after a fifteen minute Google search—even as I knew that the director of the Writing Programs at OU, having invited Mr. Birkerts to come to campus, obviously had the info. I was searching for. But I couldn’t do that of course—because somehow that seemed like a breech of etiquette—contacting Mr. Birkerts with an ill-gotten email address, when it was clear (Google-ly speaking) that he didn’t wish for unsolicited conversations. And how maybe that would have been easier—yes, of course I could have just walked up and said something like “hi, I’m Kirk—I emailed you a couple days ago,” and thus in the recitation of my previously-verified legitimacy would be spawned an immediate literary friendship.

Now, of course, from twenty-thousand feet over Iowa (or Nebraska? South Dakota?) I can see the ridiculousness of my reticence, and now the mind races off to the future awkwardness when in four weeks Mr. Birkerts comes to Athens and is struck with an unexpected discomfort caused by the recognition that I was the lurking mute of United Flight 521, a future scenario that quickly death-spirals into a scene of me being drummed out of the PhD program in disgrace.

I try not to obsess about my failings and try not to think about the remaining three hours of flight time available for me to pick at this tiny self-inflicted wound. For the moment I plot my Seattle plan, trying to figure out a not-creepy way to waylay Mr. Birkerts in SEA-TAC, as I promised my wife I would. A spousal promise. I’ve only been married nine months, but I imagine that a spousal promise—even one made via text message—is much more serious, weightier in fact than any vow I made as a single man.

But I’m getting ahead of myself. Before boarding the flight, before hoping in vain that my cowardice would be redeemed by the gods of the air or a benign United Airlines seating-assignment algorithm putting Mr. Birkerts in the seat next to me, before these useless prayers there was waiting in line—I in the queue for Zone 3 boarding, Mr. Birkerts less than six feet away from me waiting for the call for Zone 5. I could have reached out and touched his arm. But I stood motionless. I am the prototypical mental coward—I am fearless when I can act without thought (drugs, alcohol) but once the intent to act is slowed even the slightest by my internal deliberations, that filibuster is rarely broken.

And now, as if to further mock me, I realize that he is seated in the second-to-last row of the plane, where I always sit–for good reason, as it gives you the best chance of having an empty seat next to you. But I am sitting a dozen rows up and away from my fated seat next to Mr. Birkerts because I was in a flustered hurry while booking my ticket online in a Graduate computer lab filling with students and already ten minutes late for my next class. So I didn’t take the extra minute to choose my standard back-of-the-plane seat—I just accepted the one chosen for me—the one the computer system assigned, being the best remaining “non-premium” seat, i.e. the empty seat closest to the front of the plane. And so here I sit in seat 38F, a victim of my poor planning, left to stew in my peculiar fears, trying to convince myself that I will in fact introduce myself to Mr. Birkerts at SEA-TAC, and maybe even offer to split a cab. That I will overcome myself.

The most unsettling thing about this whole non-exchange is that in a simple pro-con equation the potential downside to the intro was so miniscule in comparison to the upside. But I am so fearful of that awkward moment, that I’d rather suffer through my lifetime of missed-opportunity regrets than risk…what, exactly? That Mr. Birkerts might be unfriendly? Aloof? Would I crumble if greeted with silence? What did I really fear, that Mr. Birkerts is some kind of crazy rock-star who might scream at me when I approached? That he is Hunter S. Thompson? I assume, based on his aura of quietude that he wasn’t having a drug-fueled meltdown, and would be highly unlikely to hallucinate my approach as a random lizard come to eat him. And yet, the curse of my imagination is that I always imagine bad outcomes, that I assume (and thus prophesize) failure. Safety through avoidance of risk.

Not this time. Overcome the self…

 

***

 

Postscript:

And so, on February 26th 2014, contrary to all previous expectations, I did end up making Mr. Birkerts acquaintance—after setting up my ambush spot at the arrival gate and then of course letting him walk past me while pretending to be deeply engrossed in some data byte on my phone. But I chased him down and introduced myself, and Mr. Birkerts and I strolled through SEA-TAC with our roller-bags and took the light-rail train into downtown Seattle, chatting amiably for over an hour. Sven Birkerts in person is as charming, intelligent and erudite as he is on the page, and he said many brilliant things—of which sadly I remember almost none, as I was floating in an endorphin-glow cocoon of this single epic victory over myself.