Apologia

  Allegory of Vanity  (1632/1636); Antonio de Pereda, Vienna Museum of Fine Arts. Source:  Wikipedia

Allegory of Vanity (1632/1636); Antonio de Pereda, Vienna Museum of Fine Arts. Source: Wikipedia

It has been 500 days since my last post. In retrospect, I should have neglected to do the arithmetic. Those 500 days are a yawning chasm between a book published and one that is yet to be submitted. V.S. Naipaul’s words ring true:

And really, I suppose, unless I had been driven by great necessity, something even like panic, I might never have written. The idea of laying aside the ambition was very restful and tempting—the way sleep was said to be tempting to Napoleon’s soldiers on the retreat from Moscow.

A warm bed has a certain allure at two in the morning. The touch of cold sheets is more pleasant than a snowbank on the steppes, but the weight of failure and the shame of retreat are certainly familiar. Nevertheless, driven by what I considered necessity, I’ve managed to complete a draft. This post marks what I like to call a ‘strategic pause’ – a phrase that gives my creative malaise a gravity that almost marks it as essential. The languor creates distance between creator and created. Upon viewing the manuscript again, my gaze should be clearer, my thoughts sharper. I will be closer to success, but never far away from failure.

Michelle de Kretser provides an explanation in The Lost Dog, if only briefly, demonstrating through dialogue the artist’s anxiety about their ability to replicate success. It helps, I think, that I’ve set a low bar – finishing the manuscript constitutes success, as far as I’m concerned.

However, expectation towers above us and casts cold shadows. I’m anxious about rereading my work after my pause ends. What will it look like? Will I have to delete it all and rewrite it? What if the ideas and the words don’t come? Bukowski’s poem ‘so you want to be a writer?’ can be confronting for an aspiring author. A few lines are salient:

if you have to wait for it to roar out of
you,
then wait patiently.
if it never does roar out of you,
do something else.

“How much of human life is lost in waiting?” Emerson wonders. This is why I hate the sound of a ticking clock. The sound haunted the mathematician G.H. Hardy, too. “No mathematician should ever allow himself to forget that mathematics, more than any other art or science, is a young man’s game.” He wrote those words in A Mathematician’s Apology. He was in his sixties at the time and knew that his creativity had waned. “Galois died at twenty-one, Abel at twenty-seven, Ramanujan at thirty-three, Riemann at forty.” He goes on, listing each one.

Some writers count the days. Others count the burned cigarette butts in the ashtray, a harsh reminder of the inexorable. I’m probably not supposed to mention cigarettes but I will. They sharpen my concentration and make it easier to write. I daresay that my smoking will disgust my younger readers rather than encourage them to take up the habit, so I won’t add a disclaimer here – I wouldn’t dare think so little of you. There are many who came before me who indulged and for similar reasons. Christopher Hitchens leaned on the unsteady crutch of alcohol, but was famous for his smoking. I always found alcohol a whetstone for the tongue rather than the pen but Hitchens was at his best on both, and said as much in a 1992 review for Kiernan’s Tobacco: A History. On writers and cigarettes, he says:

Kiernan’s sweetest note is struck when he contemplates the wondrous effect of tobacco on the creative juices. Having reviewed the emancipating influence of a good smoke on the writing capacities of Virginia Woolf, Christopher Isherwood, George Orwell and Compton Mackenzie, he poses the large question whether ‘with abstainers multiplying, we may soon have to ask whether literature is going to become impossible – or has already begun to be impossible.’ It’s increasingly obvious, as one reviews new books fallen dead-born from the modem, that the meretricious blink of the word-processor has replaced, for many ‘writers’, the steady glow of the cigarette-end and the honest reflection of the cut-glass decanter.

Is he right? Hitchens goes on: “Kiernan suggests that both Marx and Tolstoy may have suffered irretrievable damage as writers from having sworn off smoking in late middle age…” Smoking writers share an anxiety about a loss of creativity that comes with surrendering the habit. Hitchens gave up eventually, but not soon enough to save himself. A few years before cancer stole him away, Hitchens eulogised each cigarette that had burned between his fingers: “It’s the perfect self-administered micro-drug, a little glowing friend that never lets you down.” At which point, he wondered why he ever quit. The answer may seem obvious but it actually isn’t that simple, and it takes a smoker to understand.

Stephen Fry eventually kicked the habit after remembering some lines from Oscar Wilde:

‘A cigarette is the perfect type of perfect pleasures,’ says Lord Henry Wotton in The Picture of Dorian Gray. ‘It is exquisite, and it leaves one unsatisfied.’

Fry explains:

…a cigarette delivers the keen joy, the hug of gratifications, and then – nothing more than the desire to experience it all over again. And so on. No moment of feeling engorged, full, unworthy and sick, nor hangover or mood crash. A cigarette is perfect because, like a highly evolved virus, it attaches itself to the brain of the user such that its only purpose is to induce them to have another.

A Sisyphean habit, in other words, a ridiculous pursuit, which reminds me of this: “All great deeds and all great thoughts have a ridiculous beginning.” Albert Camus wrote that in The Myth of Sisyphus. The key is to be comfortable feeling ridiculous, and it’s hard not to feel ridiculous when you aspire to achieve something great.

But it takes a little extra, too. It's a truth universally acknowledged that the universe conserves energy. Pouring ourselves into creative endeavours robs us of some of our essence. Perhaps this is why writers are frozen with fear when the words will not come out: is that it, is the soul spent? Kafka’s diary entries reflect this torment. Steinbeck’s show his own pain. And the clock ticks louder.

Creativity takes courage, Matisse said. It’s a special kind of courage, too, because most writers work alone, and the stakes are so high.

Mary Shelley:

Invention, it must be humbly admitted, does not consist in creating out of void, but out of chaos; the materials must, in the first lace, be afforded: it can give form to dark, shapeless substances, but cannot bring into being the substance itself.

God did much the same in Genesis and he needed a day of rest at the end of the week. It takes the rest of us much longer than that, and it takes a greater toll. After all, every corpse on Everest was once a highly-motivated individual.

“Don’t do it,” Bukowski pleads, but I’m pretty sure he’s talking to someone else.