Reflections on Insanity
I am insane.
I know the statement smacks of melodrama, but what else explains my obsession with writing at the exclusion of other facets of my life — an obsession that may not be altogether emotionally healthy? (How many genuine obsessions are emotionally healthy?)
My computer keyboard is my mistress, and she has seduced me, pulling me away time and again from living my authentic life. Perhaps this observation describes, at least partially, my insanity.
Okay, I do not meet the legal definition of “insanity.” I can tell right from wrong — at least 80 percent of the time. I am not delusional. I do not see the face of Jesus peeking out of my pasta salad. I do not believe UFOs are coming for me when the world ends on December 21, 2012. I always prefer opening my eyes each morning to opening my wrists. I do not hear alien voices inside my head or feel an irresistible impulse to swerve my car into oncoming traffic. I know I cannot fly without assistance from mechanical devices. I am not compelled to carry a handgun into a crowded shopping center and unload the clip into innocent bystanders.
In short, I am not a threat to myself, or to others.
I recall a quote attributed to Albert Einstein, perhaps apocryphally. He defined insanity as “doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results.”
By that definition, I am insane.
I have spent much of my adult life carefully, methodically, exhaustively educating myself. I have earned six degrees from five universities over the course of 23 years of post-secondary schooling. In fact, I am no longer proud to tell people how much formal education I have endured. They used to say, “Wow — that’s impressive!” After I earned a second Ph.D., they said, “What the hell is wrong with you?”
What the hell is wrong with me, you ask? I told you: I am insane.
Ignoring my insanity for the moment, my goal, to the extent I have one, is to live a life of the mind. I seek to understand the workings of the world and prepare for the rigors of writing high-quality prose. I have fashioned myself into a well-honed machine capable of churning out page after page of words, some of which are reasonably expressive and some of which are inexcusably wretched. But to what end?
Why do I write? It must be for a reason beyond living a life of the mind. A person can enjoy a rich interior life without succumbing to solipsism.
Why am I so obsessed that I sit in my office bent over the keyboard while others seek a human connection? Why do I put myself under enormous stress and strain when, in all likelihood, the financial rewards will be miniscule or nonexistent?
I probably will never pen a bestseller or win a Pulitzer Prize or become a household name. Even if I accomplished those things, what would they prove?
Perhaps I write not to prove anything, but because my keyboard mistress insists upon it.
Such a mystic statement cries out for a detailed explanation.
At the risk of sounding maudlin and histrionic, allow me to engage in a bit of self-analysis. This is always dangerous territory, of course, because it is so difficult to see ourselves as others see us. Moreover, self-justification easily can degenerate into self-congratulation or self-flagellation — or a curious, alternating mixture of the two. Nonetheless, a bit of navel-gazing can be therapeutic upon occasion. Let me therefore spew forth my psychobabble.
So here goes.
Why do I write? Why do I hunch over my keyboard at all hours of the night — hours when I should be sleeping, hours when I should be lost in dreams of a more perfect world, hours when I should be unloading the burdens of the day, hours when I should be draping my arm across my wife’s slumbering form and surrendering to her without hesitation or doubt?
Why do I write when it threatens my authentic life?
I write because I don’t know what else to do.
I started to say I write because I have no choice, but a person always has a choice. I just don’t think I could live with myself if I chose the alternatives.
I write because it is in my bones; it is what I have always wanted to do. As a child, I could invariably answer the question, “What do you want to be when you grow up?” The shy, awkward little boy would break into a smile and respond, “I want to be a writer.”
I write because Mrs. Strickland, a fifth-grade teacher at Royall Elementary School, told a chubby, shy, 10-year-old boy he could arrange words in a pleasing way that not everyone could.
I write because by manipulating words, I can control at least a small part of my world.
I write because it allows me to create something out of nothing, the next-best-thing to magic I have ever witnessed in this life.
I write because it is the one time when people can see me for who I really am.
I write because if there is a God, I feel closest to Him when I struggle with words.
I write because, in writing, I finally set aside my insecurities and feel, if only for a short while, that Mrs. Strickland may have been onto something.
If I never receive another nickel of remuneration, if I never publish another word, if no one ever applauds me and tells me I am special, I will still write.
I write because it is what I know and love. It is who I am.
As I said, I write because my keyboard mistress insists upon it.
Writing has been good to me — up to a point. It has allowed me to embrace my introverted personality and come to terms with my crushing, almost unbearable, shyness, although I am unsure of cause-and-effect. Do I write because I am introverted, or am I introverted because I write? I am no psychologist, and the answers elude me. All I know is I cannot imagine my life without writing.
Yet my writing has hurt me, too. It has allowed me to stay ensconced in my shell. It has robbed me of the human connection I crave.
I suddenly awoke from a trance in middle age to discover I had no life outside of my writing. I never had children of my own, but I had two stepchildren. They are now grown and moved away, with children of their own. My wife eventually grew tired of feeling alone even when she was in the same room with me, and so she, too, left.
I inhabit space with three goldfish, three dogs, and four cats. They are far more forgiving of my foibles and eccentricities than are their human brethren. They have no choice, I suppose, yet they appear genuinely fond of me as well. Save for the goldfish, who always appear indifferent, when I come home even after a short absence, the animals act as if I have returned from a foreign war with a slew of medals draped around my neck. They throw me their version of a ticker-tape parade.
Their demands are few. As long as I throw some food and water their way from time to time, praise them in a singsong voice, and clean up their messes, we peacefully coexist.
I also feed cats, raccoons, opossums, deer, turtles, and assorted other critters through my outdoor “frequent diner” program, for their needs are much to my liking: They do not require my undivided attention. They make no major demands on my time.
Sometimes, though, the animals, as wonderful as they are, do not sustain me. When I scream myself awake in the middle of the night, sweating, short of breath, disoriented from a nightmare, feeling depressed or defeated or fearful, it would be nice to call out to a living being that did not merely lick itself in response.
I have no one to blame but myself, which is tough because I desperately want to blame someone else. But there is only me — me and my computer keyboard, that is. And she is a demanding mistress, a stern taskmaster.
But, wait, it gets worse. When someone suffers the slings and arrows of outrageous fortune, that person can, and should, take arms against a sea of troubles, and by opposing, end them. Even the indecisive Hamlet was moved to act — although, admittedly, the outcome was less than desirable.
When I awoke to find I had no life apart from my writing, what was my first response? I threw myself deeper into my writing. If the writing contributed to my isolation in the first place, what better way to deal with that isolation than to write some more?
Addicts indulge in this sort of behavior all the time.
How do I describe my addiction, my obsession, my insanity?
Whenever life becomes too painful or messy or boring, I place my fingertips on the keyboard and await a gentle invitation. My mistress sensuously slips into the room and softly, playfully whispers in my ear. I always answer her call with the gentle tap-tap-tapping of my fingers as they dance across the letters of the alphabet.
Unlike other lovers I have known, this mistress finds exquisite pleasure in my touch. She tells me I know just what to do, and I believe her. My technique, for once, is unparalleled. I am a paramour extraordinaire.
“Oh, yeah, baby,” she moans. “Do me like that!”
I do her like that. Oh, yes, sir, I do. I know exactly which keys to touch, how hard to press, when to thrust and when to parry, when to let my fingers slide, when to knead, when to pound. I am a master of the backslash, the semicolon, the ellipsis…. I pump the Tab, slap the Shift, slam the Caps Lock. I make love with the Spacebar. I am Casanova. I am Don Juan.
In return, she transports me somewhere far beyond myself. I disappear into a place of bliss and hope as words become sentences and sentences become paragraphs and paragraphs become pages and pages become chapters and chapters become books. Hours flow past inexorably; they are leaves caught in the torrent of a mighty, irrepressible flood.
It is as though Mike Martinez does not exist. I am not conscious of his hopes and desires and fears. There is no expanding waistline, receding hairline, dwindling bank account, deteriorating marriage, fear of looming old age and death. Time has no meaning.
My breath quickens; my lungs are on fire. My thoughts build to a crescendo, flooding through my body and out my fingertips, spilling onto the screen in a mighty release of words, grammar, and syntax.
I am never as transcendent as when I am lost in the arms of my mistress.
Thus do I spend my days and nights in a trance of selflessness. Hours become days and nights, and days and nights become weeks and weeks become months and months become years.
This is how a promising 23-year-old who fully believed he would take the literary world by storm became, seemingly overnight, a befuddled 48-year-old who wonders what happened to all those missing years.
Eventually, inevitably, when I am exhausted from the release, the self returns. The trance ends with a resounding thud. Transcendence becomes a cruel joke played at my expense. My mistress scurries away, leaving me spent and alone in my mundane world.
My stomach rumbles; it is time to wolf down another Clif Bar. I must ensure the animals are fed, my clothes are washed, the bills are paid. I must prepare my PowerPoint slides for tomorrow’s business meeting.
Even as I return to the world, I cannot help but wonder if I can squeeze in another writing session. Maybe after I complete my chores, if I am lucky, I can recapture my mojo before it departs for the night. Perhaps if I forgo a few hours of sleep, my mistress will reappear, take my hands, and place them on the keyboard so we can enjoy one final tryst….
This is the formula by which I now live. Repeat as necessary.
I keep doing the same thing over and over, and I expect different results. Yet there must be a better way to live, a balance to be found between writing words and living an authentic life. I regret I have yet to find that balance.
Regret should not be an overarching principle of existence. Yet I once wrote this ode to the advancing years, which I titled “Regret.” (Instead of acting to ease or erase the regret, I, of course, wrote about it. Welcome to my pathology.)
had I come of age in another time, another place or tasted death in lesser days— had I bowed my head but once or turned my eyes an inward glance
I would not be so overwise to see a world or hear her sighs; I would not lose peace of mind to cast a thoughtful look behind
but time is short; life is dear— and whispers echo ancient fears; smooth caress, forgotten touch return to ash, and ash to dust—
In the coming months and years, before my ash returns to dust, perhaps I will strike a balance between writing my books and living my life. Perhaps I will no longer wallow in regret.
In the meantime, my keyboard whispers in my ear. My mistress is cruel and vindictive; she will not be denied, nor will she be kept waiting. When she envelopes me in her arms, I am powerless to resist.
My fingers are poised and ready. My consciousness fades. Please excuse me, folks; I must get back to my writing.
As I told you, I am insane.