I had been meaning to write a little something about Zadie Smith’s slim new book of essays about life during the pandemic, Intimations, since I read it last week, because I found it so comforting and thought other people who don’t obsess over Book Twitter like I do might not have heard of it and could find some comfort in the essays.
I even did this little drawing of the book cover yesterday evening as prep for the post I was going to write. When I set my alarm for the morning (ha! ha ha! like I would not just wake up with a start at 4:00 AM anyway because that is what I do now during quar), I did one last scroll through Twitter, and there was a photo of the book cover. Maria Popova at Brain Pickings had just posted a link to her own thoughts about Smith’s new book. I closed the app without clicking through to read.
Well, shit, I thought. Why bother now? As if I am in competition with this extremely talented writer and deep thinker. As if because she wrote about it, I can’t.
This is an old script, probably left over from grad school days when my dissertation advisor used to hiss, DON’T TELL ANYONE what you’re working on. They’ll STEAL your ideas.
After having worked in advertising now for many years, and reading scads of novels and memoirs and essays and articles and blog posts and tweets, I know that ultimately, there are no completely new ideas.
So why bother?
Why write it at all? Why write anything? Why draw, paint, make things that do not have a practical use?
Especially right now, when everything is such a mess. People are suffering and it is real suffering.
Smith has an essay about suffering in the book, “Suffering Like Mel Gibson,” that touches on privilege and suffering. The takeaway boils down to this: the need to accept and confront the reality of personal suffering, which comes as if tailor made for each one of us, is required before we are truly see and empathize with the suffering of others. It made me think about everything that is happening now and how much selfishness and foolishness is being driven by fear and the refusal to or inability to confront and accept reality.
In her essay, “Something to Do,” Smith addresses being an artist or writer during these strange times and thinks through the perceived pointlessness of it.
It helped me collect some of my own thoughts that had been ricocheting around in my head, not only about the point of it during this time, but the point of creating work in general.
A couple of days ago, I was texting with an artist friend. I sent him a link to something, which led to, How are you doing in these weird times? Which led to me texting with him about my fear of not being able to keep making work now that I don’t have assignments or a thesis to do, no deadlines but ones I set for myself.
This friend had walked away from painting for years, locked his work up in a store room in the furthest reaches of Queens. He did other creative things here and there. And did paying design work. A lot of that.
But he has been back at it, painting again for the last couple of years. Intensely engaged with it. Why he stopped in the first place, I don’t know, but could probably make some guesses. What it was that sent him back to it, though, I think I am beginning to understand.
The conversation came around to why do we do this work no one is asking us to make. Like, why bother?
He does it because it felt awful not to. Because he likes to paint. Wants to paint.
It made me think about how in the past I’ve said, I hate to write, but love having written. I think Dorothy Parker originally said it? Or maybe she stole it from someone else? Who knows? It’s not an new idea, and it's one I’ve seen from a lot of writers. I had picked it up at some point, internalized it, and started parroting it. My favorite part of the process is revising, and I am always impatient for that part. And it can be hard to settle down and get started writing sometimes, especially if I haven’t been doing it regularly. But hate it? No.
Lorrie More has written in response to people who complain that they hate writing or are blocked and can’t: Then don’t. No one NEEDS your writing.
My friend and I were texting about that. Why keep going when there is SO MUCH out there, when there are no gallery shows, no publication?
Because I want to. Because I feel miserable when I don’t.
So, here we are. I wrote the thing. Because I liked writing it and wanted to. Even though someone else also wrote about it.
Zadie Smith, Initimations.
Lorrie Moore, LitHub, “It’s Better to Write than be a Writer”