Once there was a writer who hadn’t published anything in a very long time. When his family and friends asked him what he was working on, he would say:
“I’m not really sure.” Or, “Sometimes it feels like something, but other times it feels like it is nothing.”
His family and friends didn’t know what to make of it. He seemed busy when he was writing and content in the rest of his life, and eventually, they learned to accept it.
Then one day while the writer was working, he felt himself slip out the top of his head, and he died, right there, lying on the couch with his computer open on his lap. He’d been in excellent health. No one really understood what had happened. But his heart had stopped beating. At least he died doing something he loved, everyone said.
Now the writer had many writer friends, and at the funeral, one of them began to ask:
“Does anybody know what he was working on?”
The other writers didn’t know. The writer’s wife didn’t know and neither did his children. And the writer’s writer friend thought this was strange. He thought it was strange that nobody knew anything about the work and strange that no one seemed to care. Or maybe what was strange was that he, the writer’s writer friend, did care.
Eventually he worked up the nerve to ask his friend’s wife if he could have a look.
“Sure,” she said and handed over the writer’s computer.
The writer’s writer friend took the computer home and set it on his desk. He made himself some coffee and paced around the room.
Why was he nervous? He was only going to read his friend’s work, which he’d done many times before. And it wasn’t that he was afraid of violating his friend’s privacy. No. That would have been a reasonable concern, but the writer’s writer friend was not troubled by that. There was something else, some personal trepidation that the writer’s writer friend felt. It was as if by reading, he knew he would come up against something, something that he… he… he didn’t quite know what it would be.
The writer’s writer friend opened the computer and began to read. It seemed that the writer had been for years working exclusively on the same document. It was organized as a sort of journal, with dates before each entry, and much of the document was simply that, banal recountings of the writer’s day-to-day, which would often morph into philosophical musings or flights of fancy. Sometimes these would turn into the beginning of a story or a sketch of a story, while at other times, the prose would break down into nonsense—impromptu nursery rhymes with made-up words, stream of consciousness narratives with little or no punctuation, and multiple pages where the writer’s fingers had clearly strayed from home row but had not ceased their flight, as if the writer had been working blindfolded and had not bothered to read over what he’d done.
“What could have been the purpose of this?” the writer’s writer friend wondered. There were so many snippets of things that could have been, with a little exercise of the will and some discipline, the basis for something interesting—a story or poem or essay. Even some of the nonsense was fascinating and could have, if properly curated, been assembled into something beautiful and strange and entirely publishable. And as these thoughts assembled in the writer’s writer friend’s mind, he began to fear. Had he, by dint of choosing to go through this morass of words and writing, unwittingly signed up to edit all this work? To break it apart and put it together the way it was meant to be assembled?
The writer’s writer friend was so troubled by these questions that he closed the laptop and tried to go straight to bed, for it was late, and he had things to do the following day, but he lay there staring at his ceiling, thinking:
“This is the work of a lifetime. I cannot do this. I will not do this. What would become of my own work? My own writing career? This work is not really any better than my own. What would be lost if this writing never saw the light of day? If no one but me ever saw it again?”
Eventually the writer’s writer friend drifted off, but he woke early the next morning and went immediately to his desk and started reading again. And as he read, little thoughts would flit through his head:
“You’re just avoiding your own work.” And, “You need to stop this foolishness.” And, “There are more pressing matters at hand.”
But even though these thoughts were agitating and compelling, they couldn’t overcome the urge to read on, and when he did finally take a break to let out the dog and make his dinner, the writer’s writer friend felt thoroughly flummoxed.
Among the many troubling aspects of the journal, perhaps the most troubling was the fact that the entries, at least the beginning of each, were often fixated on questions like, “Am I a writer? Am I wasting my time? Should I be doing something else with my life?”
The writer’s writer friend understood these questions. He’d been wrestling with them since he first began to write in earnest many years ago. But how was it that his friend had still been troubled by them and had yet simply stopped testing his work against the opinion of the world? For the writer’s writer friend, even though he had published books and won awards, knew he was still driven by his ambition to be esteemed and respected, especially by those individuals and organizations that he esteemed and respected.
That's when he realized something. The very reason he'd begun to read his friend's journal in the first place was to find the secret that had freed the writer from the compulsive need to prove himself. For hadn’t the writer, as he’d let go of his attempts to send his work out into the world become increasingly more peaceful, more wise and accepting and loving?
No. It had all been a projection on the part of the writer’s writer friend. He’d just assumed that the writer had somehow managed to free himself from this need to beat back his feelings of insufficiency and fraudulence, from the need to protect and expand the writerly identity he’d worked so hard to assemble. The truth was that his friend had never become free. The journal proved that.
“These are nothing but the self-referential musings of a lost soul,” the writer’s writer friend concluded. And with that, he vowed that he would never read the journal again.
The writer’s writer friend returned to his usual routine. He kept up with his obligations and did his writerly work. But something had changed. The zest had gone from his enterprises, or rather, he realized the zest had been gone from his life and work for some time. It was as if his life had become a constant striving towards some distant future, as if he’d been perpetually preparing for something down the line that would make or break him, but now it seemed all too clear that his half-conscious hopes and half-hidden fears were nothing but distractions from something fundamental that was continuously passing him by, though he didn’t quite know what it was. One thing was certain though: this was the fault of his friend’s journal, and when he thought about the writer’s work, he was filled with loathing and disgust.
Days passed, and the tedium continued to grow until it became intolerable. The writer’s writer friend longed to go back to his life as it had been, but there was no going back, and he had no idea how to take a new direction forward. Any alternative future he could imagine for himself felt ridiculous, farcical, a caricature full of hypocrisy and shallow posturing. Lost as he was, he thought to himself, “I have become just like my friend, and I will probably end up like him as well.” And as he slowly became resigned this fate, he decided that he might as well resume reading the journal, and so one afternoon he dug his friend’s computer from the back of his closet.
He read until late in the evening, and the next morning he picked up where he'd left off and read deep into the night. Each day he did the same thing, and he began to neglect his other duties. He began to fall behind on his deadlines. His friends and family couldn’t get hold of him, and when they did, the writer’s writer friend would be brief, eager as he was to get back to the work of reading his dead friend’s writing.
It wasn’t that he’d discovered any more meaning or coherence in the journal, but something had changed. For as he was reading, things had started to happen.
At times it was as if the ebb and flow of the words were carrying him somewhere, like he was bobbing on a raft through an impenetrable fog, headed towards some very important place he knew he would never reach. While at other times, it was as if the rhythm of the words was pointing at something, a sort of silence beneath the words, a silence which at times would paradoxically grow very loud, so loud that the words would fall to the background, like the sounds of a crowded pool when one has sunk to the bottom. At these times the writer’s writer friend could close his eyes and let the rhythm of the silence carry him still further down, a journey into some bright darkness, a journey to nowhere that was somehow deeply satisfying in itself.
“I could read this document forever,” the writer’s writer friend sometimes thought. Or, “This is all I or anyone else ever needs.” While at other times he would still think, “This is a colossal waste of time.” And, “This is an incompressible mess.”
But none of thoughts could take hold. And the longer he read the less and less power any of the thoughts seemed to have. It was as if the silence he’d discovered while reading his friend’s document had a way of dissolving these concerns and others.
Eventually the writer’s writer friend no longer needed to sit for hours reading the document. Some days he wouldn’t read his friend’s work at all. And when he wrote, he would sometimes have the experience of the words flowing high above him, as if he were looking through a glass ceiling at fast-moving clouds. While at other times it was as if the words were welling up out of the ground and passing through him, charging his heart. The flowing words, which he’d so long believed to be his own, became strange and beautiful things, gifts beaming in from some place he would never reach but which was also somehow always at hand, always guiding and protecting him as he rose each day, as he met with his family and friends, as he walked his dog and made his dinner and published his books and continued to win his awards.
Thanks for reading. See you soon.