How To Keep Going
Here’s something I’ve been thinking about a lot lately: Every act of creation is an act of risk. The risk, or one of the risks (along with failure, exposure, even success) is that the time will be wasted. In our frantic late-capitalist Anthropocene Forever-Now, most of us like (or are trained to like) measurable results, immediate returns, and tangible rewards. Though we waste much materially — hello, ocean island of plastic — we hate to waste our time. Our toddler brains have taken over. We don’t like to wait. We? I mean me.
Why on earth would a person take on an ambitious, sprawling, impossibly time-consuming project that may well, by its very definition and scope, never reach completion? Or maybe I mean, why do projects sometimes become ambitious, sprawling, impossibly time-consuming? Is it:
self-preservation? (If I never finish it, it can never be judged)
obsessiveness? (I must collect them all/create it completely/win the world record for this to be worthwhile)
garden-variety procrastination? (“I delayed the research for ten years or so. I lived my life, I did my grocery shopping, I was on the subway, I was on busses.” -Edward P Jones, on what took him so long to write his Pulitzer-Prize-winning novel The Known World.)
Or is it:
a way to push creative energy to its limits?
a way to make a life that overflows the boundaries of the human body?
a way to test oneself, to meet oneself in the dark?
I want to know how to embark on a project you know might never end, and, related but slightly apart from this, I want to know what happens when creative or athletic or scientific processes unexpectedly become lengthy spiritual quests. I want to know, once we embark on a long haul, how to keep going.
Long term thinking at the end of the world
A long haul project holds implicit within it a belief in the future. This feels hard, lately.
“How do you negotiate believing the end of time is here?” writer and creativity coach Shelly Oria asks me at a wine bar bristling with activity, a cool early fall breeze curling in an open window and licking at our drinks. This is years before the pandemic, ages before an armed group of insurrectionists attempts a coup. It’s funny (?) to remember that even back then, it felt like the future might be slipping away from us.
Out on the dusky, dimming street, people are hurrying past in jocular groups, that weekend evening energy crackling around them as the streetlights flick on. As it happens I have just seen an art exhibit called “Waste of Space,” in which the artist imagines a future of space colonies we fill with our trash. As we speak, California is burning, a historic wildfire creating the worst air quality on earth. Soon Australia will catch fire as well.
“I believe a transition is coming,” Shelly says, “and we don’t have the language for it yet. I have to believe it’s a new beginning. Art and love matter in that transition. The energy we go into the transition with will matter for what comes next. We need artists who look things in the face. What is long-term thinking at the end of time?”
A few years after Shelly and I talk, a pandemic rages over the country, over the world, like a nightmarish wildfire. It feels like Noah’s flood, like 9/11 x 1,000,000. Well, people online joke, kind of, here it is, the end of the world, and I had just gotten my shit together, too. It does, actually, feel like the end of the world, the city eerily still except for a near-constant whine of sirens bringing sick people to overloaded hospitals. Or maybe I mean: the end of a world. It’s felt this way for a while, like we were poised between epochs.
What does it mean for art? What does the written word mean in this moment? I don’t know. I can’t tell anything from here, in the middle of it. I still don’t even know if I come out of it unscathed, if I end up on the other side in a mood to muse about long term projects. They feel vital to me now, but will they always?
The essential task of being human
What is long-term thinking at the end of time? Or at the very least, at a moment that feels extremely grim? America in the early 2020s has a distinct “end of our civilization” tang to it, with undertones of extremism, increasing violence, rampant and poisonous nostalgia, and a strong finish of environmental catastrophe. Mix in the pandemic twist and, well, this feels more like a moment for “life is short, take it one day at a time” than “let me embark on a long term project I can’t even imagine the end of.”
But we still have to start things. Sometimes I think I can trick fate by starting projects. Sorry disease, I’ll say, sorry death, I’m busy, you see I wasn’t done with this project yet, so…
I want to know how to keep the faith.
Writing books, creating art, making discoveries — they often take a long, long time. Inevitably, on a long journey you’ll get lost along the way. And in our GPS-gridded, time-tracked world, we don’t like getting lost. It’s inefficient. It’s — the worst of all things — a waste of time. And who knows how much time we have.
We don’t even like the vagueness of maps, which seem so esoteric and withholding when compared with our smartphones’ straightforward list of commands. But, as Rebecca Solnit put it in an email to me: “That’s the essential task of being human: traveling down that road into the unknown, the fog, the mist, the darkness, the future that is fullest possibility.”
Let’s discover how we can embrace the infinite that is implicit within the unfinished. It’s what John Keats called, in an 1817 letter to his brothers, “Negative Capability, that is, when a man is capable of being in uncertainties, mysteries, doubts, without any irritable reaching after fact and reason.” The willingness, even desire, to embrace uncertainty and live with mystery and doubt. We want that, right? It’s hard, but we want it.
I do, anyway.