This is a new feature by Kelly McNerney and Nate Waggoner, in which the two writers ask each other questions, and maybe a guest will join them sometimes.
NATE: Herzog said that if he didn’t make Fitzcarraldo, he would be “a man without dreams.” You and I had an instructor we were both big fans of who would give us a few quotes early in the year, and one was from Goethe: “Do not hurry, do not rest.” Sometimes in my life post- grad school I feel like someone who had been training for the Olympics and then suddenly circumstances changed and now I can only run a lap around the block occasionally. If you’re creatively fulfilled by your work (tshyah, right), are you without dreams for abandoning the unwieldy, scathing, experimental novel you’ve been picking at here and there for years? Conversely, if you’re spending all your time looking for work and doing dumbass side gigs, how do you get anything meaningful done? If you had to choose one, would you take peace of mind or the kind of body of work you’ve always intended to create?
KELLY: I hate the idea of not resting. I sometimes feel like my whole life, including before grad school, during and since has been like training for the Olympics, and only now I am starting to feel the exhaustion, and really, I don’t even want to run around the block anymore. Am mixing the metaphors here? Actually, maybe I’m not. Murakami wrote this little book called, What I Talk About when I Talk about Running. And it’s about running and what it has taught him, but the whole way through he’s actually braiding his writing practice into the descriptions of running, and keeps writing about how training for a marathon is like writing a novel, and just the endurance and the willingness to keep showing up and all that stuff. At the end I was like, he’s talking about writing actually, through the whole thing and just borrowing the running metaphor. Anyways.
Virginia Woolf wrote, “What are the great poetical names of the last hundred years or so? Coleridge, Wordsworth, Byron, Shelley, Landor, Keats, Tennyson, Browning, Arnold, Morris, Rosetti, Swinburne—we may stop there. Of these, all but Keats, Browning, Rossetti were University men, and of these three Keats, who died young, cut off in his prime, was the only one not fairly well to do. It may seem a brutal thing to say, and it is a sad thing to say: but, as a matter of hard fact, the theory that poetical genius bloweth where it listeth, and equally in poor and rich, holds little truth… These are dreadful facts, but let us face them. It is—however dishonouring to us as a nation—certain that, but some fault in our commonwealth, the poor poet has not in these days, nor has had for 200 years, a dog’s chance.”
Bleak as fuck, right? But what I LOVE about this essay, is that it acknowledges the most unfashionable of all things to suggest about writing and art—it acknowledges the material reality of the those who produce it. “Intellectual freedom depends upon material things.” It’s so funny, because it seems like people are like obsessed with this idea with the “CREATIVE PROCESS” these days, like you can’t turn a corner without a TED talk about creativity and this magical, subliminal flow thing, but as soon as you mention work, or rent or whatever, it’s like you’re shattering people’s romantic visions of a writer.
So, let me return to the question. I guess it’s a catch-22, or a guess, a false paradox though. Honestly, I think it has to do with this idea of “abandoning” the work and “peace of mind”. I think what you’re trying to say is, “I want to be able to just work, and be satisfied by my work, that I actually get paid for and enjoy my life for once without all this pressure in the back of my mind about writing.” But I think the abandonment will not, in fact, provide you with the peace of mind that you yourself, and me too, are romanticizing. That maybe doesn’t really exist for you I don’t think. I think you know that, really.
Maybe what you really want is acknowledgment of how unfair it feels to be nagged by the deep compulsion to write your novel when all you want to do is relax and enjoy your life, like other people do when they aren’t working. At the same time, there are all these other writers who get to only focus on writing because their spouse works for Pixar, or their Dad is the founder of something, and in some way their material reality allows them to write unfettered, and you’re jealous. Maybe all of that is true, but I guess, unfairly, it still doesn’t matter because at the end of the day it doesn’t change your situation. I guess my most simple advice would be to abandon the project and see if gives you the satisfaction and peace of mind and rest that you long for. Experiment with just giving it up, and see. Then, if you’re driven to return to it, maybe it will be because you were driven to a different extreme of unhappiness that comes, for you, from NOT writing. And you’ll still be frustrated, but you’ll have gained a sense of choosing it, instead of being neither here nor there, unresolved about it.