In which I mention spiders and announce my plans to post a new essay every Sunday.
Back when I toyed for about five minutes with the idea of becoming a professor, I remember reading about a woman who was driving a school bus in order to be able to afford to keep working as an adjunct in English literature. She claimed to be fine with this, at least in the sense that she had never expected much better, and argued that you shouldn’t even try to become a professor these days (at least in the humanities) unless motivated by something other than the prospect of making a living, like a poet. That is, you should only do it if, the same way a poet writes poems, you would be willing to do it for free. I gave up the idea of becoming a professor but the impoverished adjunct’s way of looking at things has stuck with me in the form of a general philosophy that it’s important to pay attention to how you really want to spend your time, and besides, who doesn’t want to be “like a poet,” even if, in this example, it is just another word for banging your head against the wall.
I once took an on-line journalism course through Media Bistro in which I was mocked by the instructor for a statement he found on one of the web sites I kept before this one, something about how the mere fact of getting paid for a piece of writing is no sure mark of its quality, that what matters is how the writer feels about it, etc., etc. It was a journalism course, meaning that everyone in the class was there to polish marketable skills, so I understood where he was coming from. But I’m not about to let go of the idea that there are certain activities each of us needs to do whether anyone is paying us for them or not, and I am absolutely certain that – with writing in particular – too much attention to marketability is sure to change the shape and feel of what we’re doing, which in turn may defeat the purpose and turn the whole activity into something other than whatever it is we “need” to do.
I mean, there’s writing and then there’s writing.
For about the past month, I was working on an impressionistic and discursive essay that I figured would have important things to say about the creative urge and how writing works, perhaps only for me personally but even if so it seemed a question worth pursuing. I’ve put that essay aside for the time being in favor of remaining sane, but here’s something I found in the course of my research, from a public address by the German writer W.G. Sebald in which he describes a 1976 trip he made to Salzburg to visit his long-lost school chum, the painter Jan Peter Tripp, whose work Sebald seems in the oblique Sebaldian manner to be crediting with first inspiring him to consider becoming a writer. Sebald describes the profound effect on him of one of Tripp’s pieces in particular, an engraving showing “the mentally ill judge Daniel Paul Schreber with a spider in his skull,” and asks “what can there be more terrible than the ideas always scurrying around our minds?” The engraving and Sebald’s question call up, for me, a song my mother used to sing to me when I was a child, in which an old woman swallows first a fly and then a series of successively larger creatures, each one intended to eat the one preceding it. Specifically I think of the spider, which the old woman swallowed immediately after the fly and which “wriggled and jiggled and tickled inside her.” Consideration of first causes is a natural tendency at moments when the empty page looms and yet offers no suggestions concerning how to fill it. That is, why the hell do I feel the urge to do this? And what, oh what, will quiet that urge (other than whisky and anti-depressants)? At times, such questions can feel urgent indeed. “I don’t know why she swallowed the fly,” goes the song’s refrain. “Perhaps she’ll die.”
So no more early-morning scribbling in notebooks that will never see the light of day. Here’s the plan: an essay a week on this web site, and no cute categories or other prescriptions concerning what sorts of essays they’ll be. I’ve announced grand plans like this in the past, of course, but this time around I know some of the things that went wrong, mainly biting off more than I could chew and also getting too specific about what I was going to do. I used to have the idea that I could post regularly here and then work on more personal stuff on the side and somewhere during all of that also make a living, all of which I now realize from experience just won’t work. And I want to focus on the essay form, since, as E.B. White once wrote, “only a person who is congenitally self-centered has the effrontery and the stamina to write essays,” and that looks like a glove that fits.
As for my old Media Bistro “professor,” of course I’m open to submitting things to magazines and the like, but I can’t worry about that too much to start with. When I am submitting things, I want to be able to point to a steady body of work that has been appearing here, weekly and column-like, as part of my bona fides. It doesn’t do me much good to get some random essay published somewhere after weeks of trying if the effort is distracting me from practicing: I don’t need the independent validation, and I have faster ways to earn $100. So I’m going to plug along for a while here before worrying too much about that side of things, and if you find yourself thinking that something I’ve written is good enough to publish, don’t worry, something else I write will be, too. Of course, if someone comes along and wants to hire me for an E.B. White-style weekly column (does anyone print that sort of thing anymore?), well, all bets might be off.
I’ll post the essays each Sunday, no later than noon Mountain Time (two p.m. Eastern Time). Enjoy, and thanks for reading.