Missing in Action
Blogging has been a pretty low priority over the past few months. To an unusual degree, so has writing itself.
Quick Study, while reflecting personal interests, has never really been a personal blog, like some. It feels odd and out-of-place to write in an introspective voice here. But doing so may be necessary in order to reconnect with the process of writing as such; so here goes.
Apart from filing my column each week, I have for the past few months been publishing much less than usual, and for that matter writing less period -- and also, perhaps more to the point, giving very much less of a damn than usual about the fact that what I do publish seems to be going nowhere, by any common metric for estimating career progress.
A kind reader sent me a note the other day saying that my essays and reviews were the short of work that ought to be in magazines like Harper's and the like, and wondering why this was not the case. I can't answer that. And not for want of pondering it, to be sure. The effort to understand the situation has been a source of very keen bewilderment and frustration at times -- and a touchy matter, even on a good day.
Somehow that has changed recently. The bile just evaporated off. It is a pleasant change. But (just to be clear about this) it has involved no increase in optimism whatsoever. Writing has to be its own reward -- because it is pretty clear that not much else will be, and thinking otherwise is a certain source of unhappiness.
It probably bears mentioning that, in the midst of all these revaluations, my 45th birthday came to pass, which all things considered is probably not a coincidence. A few weeks before that, I went back to Austin, Texas for the first time since leaving it almost twenty years ago. It would not be easy to describe the experience of doing so -- let alone of what it was like to return to D.C., which after all this time feels no more like a gemeinschaft than it ever has.
But to put things in the simplest possible terms, the total effect has been to make James Baldwin's lines (quoted here not for the first time) even of a guide to the "urgent tasks" on my own agenda:
Though we would like to live without regrets, and sometimes proudly insist that we have none, this is not really possible, if only because we are mortal. When more time stretches behind than stretches before one, some assessments, however reluctantly and incompletely, begin to be made. Between what one wishes to become and what one has become there is a momentous gap, which will now never be closed. And this gap seems to operate as one's final margin, one's last opportunity, for creation. And between the self as it is and the self as one sees it, there is also a distance even harder to gauge. Some of us are compelled, around the middle of our lives, to make a study of this baffling geography, less in the hope of conquering these distances than in the determination that the distance shall not become any greater.
I should make clear that this is not -- as it might be wrongly taken -- a call for introspection. Baldwin's language here is subtle but precise.
It includes, I think, the possibility of recognizing that certain forms of "ambition" amount to a violation of one's real wishes and possibilities. Finding what Baldwin calls "one's final margin, one's last opportunity, for creation" may involve throwing out a lot of clutter.
It may also involve reconnecting with things that you once recognized as valuable and true, but which proved too difficult or too inconvenient to keep at the center of your attention.
In my case, it was Marxism and the heritage of the anti-Stalinist left. About ten years ago, the fact that certain very creepy and deranged people identified themselves as Marxists made me want to get as much distance from them as possible. This in spite of continuing to admire the legacy of Trotsky, Serge, and so on.
Whenever possible I've given support, including financial support, to socialist publications. But the rest of the time I've just bitten my tongue (gnawed on it even) whenever exposed to the usual contemptuous but utterly ignorant comments on the subject by Washington liberals.
All the research I once did on C.L.R. James and the Johnson-Forest Tendency (including hundreds of pages of drafts and outlines for things I wanted to write) ended up sitting in boxes in my study.
What are my values? What is important? Is the fact that my work seems to disappear into the cyber-ether without a trace really something worth worrying about? How great an injustice is that in the larger scheme of things? People in Haiti are eating dirt while grain gets dumped in the ocean in order to keep the price up on the international market. Whatever ambitions of mine must go unrealized, finding enough calories to get through a single day is not one of them.
To spend more than five minutes in a year worrying about why Harper's doesn't call is not a crime, of course, but it speaks of a grotesque disproportion in one's sense of the world.
These are thoughts of a kind it proves difficult (and profoundly disobliging) to take as seriously as I have been taking them, lately. So I haven't much felt like writing, and the usual career-minded incentives for doing so have not exactly been compelling.
The relationship between value and motivation can be complicated even in the best of cases. When both are in flux, all bets are off. But after three months of being in a sort of holding pattern, it seems very clear that I have to start writing again in a much more focused and intensive way. It is my way of being in the world.
Time for another quotation, this time from Theodore Solotaroff's essay "Writing into the Cold":
The writer's defense is his power of self-objectivity, his interest in otherness, and his faith in the process itself, which enables him to write on into the teeth of his doubts and then to improve it. In the scars of his struggle between the odd, sensitive side of the self that wants to write and the practical, socialized one that wants results, [the writer] is likely to find his true sense of vocation. Moreover, writing itself, if it is not misunderstood and abused, becomes a way of empowering the writing self. It converts diffuse anger and disappointment into deliberate and durable aggression, the writer's main source of energy. It converts sorrow and self-pity into empathy, the writer's main means of relating to otherness. Similarly, his wounded innocence turns into irony, his silliness into wit, his guilt into judgment, his oddness into originality, his perverseness into his stinger. Because all this takes time, indeed most of a lifetime, to compete itself, [the writer] has to learn that his main task is to persist.
That is all.
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