I’ve been reading Rebecca Newberger Goldstein’s Plato at the Googleplex, in which Plato shows up in 21st century America to promote his books and engage in Platonic dialog with contemporary American thinkers, writers, researchers and technologists.
In one of the early chapters, the woman who is escorting Plato through Google headquarters (the Googleplex) mentions to a friend that she has escorted many writers on their book tours, and that “writers are the most insecure people in the world.”
This may be true. And maybe it’s the reason I never really called myself a writer or liked hanging around people who called themselves writers. They seemed needy, or pretentious, or both.
I remember one encounter in particular, in an apartment on Central Park West back in May of 1990. I had just graduated college, and I was needy and pretentious, though I would never admit it. And I had this vague idea that I would be a famous writer and I would live in a castle in the south of France. I was lazy at that point in my life, so there wasn’t any work involved in this fantasy. I wouldn’t have to struggle and bust my ass to earn anything. I just was famous and I had a castle because the world was smart enough to figure out that that’s what I deserved. (Do any of you parents of teenage kids or recent college grads recognize this pattern of thinking?)
Anyway, I was in New York, visiting a friend named Farah when we stopped by her friend Karen’s apartment on Central Park West. Karen was hanging out with a classmate from Tufts named Andrew Diamond. She introduced us, and then said to Farah, “My Andrew likes to write, just like your Andrew.”
The other Andrew Diamond said, “Yeah, but I’m going to be famous. Everyone’s going to know the name Andrew Diamond.”
I saw my big castle slipping away, and worse yet, I saw myself actually having to work, and I thought, “You bastard! You better not write any pretentious bullshit under my name!” But I kept quiet.
I looked the guy up recently, and he actually did become a well known writer. He teaches American History at the Sorbonne and has published a number of well-received books. Fortunately, he includes his middle initial, J, in his byline. If I ever run into him, I’ll buy him a drink and apologize for that nasty thought.
But that was an odd encounter, and it was many years ago, and in the past twenty years or so, I haven’t considered myself particularly insecure. I certainly don’t consider myself among “the most insecure people in the world.” But I can definitely say that putting out a book and then waiting to see what people think of it is nerve-racking.
In my day job, I write software, and the computer tells me right away whether or not my code is doing what I want it to do. I write a few lines of code, then I write a test for that code, then I run the test. The time between writing a piece of code and knowing whether it works is often a matter of minutes. That’s not enough time for doubt to creep in. And the part of your brain that’s active when you code is the logical, mathematical part, not the speculative part that handles the big existential questions like “Why am I doing this?”
If you’re writing a novel, on the other hand, you may put in a year or more of work before the public sees it. You have invested a tremendous amount of intellectual, emotional and creative energy into this work, and then you just throw it out there, like a stone into the abyss, and you stand with your hand to your ear, straining to hear an echo. In that regard, it’s not at all like writing code. There is no objective CPU to tell you whether or not you did it right.
In the silence the follows publication, you’re no longer dealing with the little answerable questions of the software world. Instead of asking little questions like whether your code saved the data correctly, you’re asking big existential questions like, once again, “Why am I doing this? Why did I feel such compulsion to pour so much time and energy into this? Was it really worth it? Does anyone care? Am I even any good at it?”
This is why writers are the most insecure people in the world. Imagine if you had to ask yourself questions like this every day at your job. Imagine the guy who mows your lawn going through this aguish every time he pulls the cord to start up the mower. Imagine a football player on a boundless field with no lines, no end zone, and no boundary markers, running and running for hours on end and wondering all the while, “Am I going the right way?”
Is it any wonder so many artists have gone crazy? You can’t run a world like this.
My wife was a graphic designer for many years, and I watched her go through this cycle on every project. First there’s the challenge, then the inspiration, then the work, then the presentation to the client who, for the length of the project, has been attending to her own business and inhabiting a completely different world from the one you’ve been living in. And every time you walk into that presentation meeting, you have no idea whether you’re going to hear, “That’s great! We love it!” Or, “That’s horrible. We hate it.” Or, “That’s a good start. Just rip out everything that you think is good and replace it my crappy ideas.” Or worst of all, silence.
Every one of those meetings is the beginning of a bi-polar event. However even-tempered you may be when you walk in, you know you’re going to leave feeling either really good or really bad.
My wife eventually quit the graphic design business. The emotional toll of those cycles of judgment wasn’t worth the money. It’s also annoying to have your artwork critiqued by pompous middle managers. After all, you don’t tell them how to make their spreadsheets. Now my wife paints because that’s what she likes to do.
The big existential questions—”What is a meaningful and worthwhile way to spend the little bit of time that is allotted to me in this life? Why do I do what I do? Is there any meaning in it? Any purpose? Any value?”—these are questions the outside world cannot answer for you. And so long as you look solely to the external world to tell you why you or your work is meaningful, you will be among the most insecure people in the world.
You choose the answers to the big questions, and then you live your life in accordance with those choices and from time to time, you evaluate. “Am I being true to my choices? Do I still find this life and this work meaningful? How can I correct my course? Or is it time to choose something new?”
When I wrote my first book, no one really understood the first draft because it was half-baked. People were expecting a cake, and I gave them a bowl of batter instead. The feedback was polite, but not at all enthusiastic. And I’m glad of that, because it made me say to myself, “Fuck it. I’m not going to try to please anyone. I’ll write something that I like, and then I know at least one person will be happy with it.” (I learned later that both Katherine Hepburn and Bjork have said those same words.)
So I found a green field, and I got out my paint and I made the boundary lines and the yard markers and the end zones, and I took the ball and ran. And part of me says, “You did well. You put in the work, and you didn’t give up. You saw it through, and you made it to the end zone.” And part of me says, “You know, everyone thinks you’re crazy, running around on that field all by yourself.”