When “My Precious Ache” Becomes “My Indifferent Yawn”
August 26, 2011
Any worthwhile endeavor — whether it is a romantic relationship, a course of study in school, or a writing project — invariably requires a lengthy commitment of time, energy, and resources. Most human beings, myself included, experience difficulty sticking with long-term commitments. Commitments are boring.
Once, many years ago, I received a letter from a young lady who characterized her feelings for me as “my precious ache.” Beautifully, poignantly written, the letter described how much I meant to her in no uncertain terms. It was the most flattering, ego-boosting note I have ever received.
I am from the Groucho Marx school of thought. The twentieth century comedian reputedly said, “I don’t want to belong to any club that will accept people like me as a member.” Perhaps it is my tortured psyche, but I have always wondered what is wrong with a woman who finds me attractive. Perhaps someone with such poor taste cannot be trusted. I am not sure I want to associate with a person who exercises such questionable judgment.
As I mentioned in a previous posting, I am insane.
Despite my initial reluctance, I eventually enjoyed a long, satisfying relationship with this young lady. Unfortunately, as the Trish Murphy song (http://www.trishmurphy.com/) states, “love never dies — it just gives up.” “My precious ache” evolved into “my indifferent yawn.” The relationship ended with a whimper, not a bang (pun intended). Neither of us was willing or able to sustain the commitment.
Why do so many commitments fizzle? What happens?
This lack of stick-to-itiveness is completely understandable. Whenever we human beings embark on a new journey, it is fresh and exciting. The pulse quickens. A sense of power and excitement shoots through us like an electric current. We experience an adrenalin rush. We feel alive and free. We feel young. An unknown future lies before us. The promise of a better day is invigorating. Anything is possible.
The problem is that we cannot hold onto those feelings. Inevitably, the weeks, months, and years grind us down. What was new and fresh and exciting becomes old and stale and dull. We are addicts. We seek the high of the next fix, the thrill of the new adventure. The “precious ache” is no longer precious, nor an ache.
That once-beautiful, sleek, intriguing, mysterious person lying beside you on the bed is now a paunchy, sagging, flatulent, predictable, dull gasbag who drains all the charisma from the room. You look at that stranger and think, “just who in the hell are you? What made me think you were alluring? Is there enough gas in the car right now for me to get out of this house and into another state by sunup?”
Writing a book is similar to dealing with people. It can get old and boring and downright unpleasant. Sometimes, to quote the Beatles, we want to “step on the gas and wipe that tear away.”
When I start writing a book, I am excited. The topic is new — or at least new to me — and each day I spend researching it opens my mind to vast storehouses of knowledge and untapped worlds I never before considered. As the bard says, “there are more things in heaven and earth, Horatio, than are dreamt of in your philosophy.”
I close my eyes and picture the final product, the beautiful, handsomely designed book with my name adorning the dust jacket. It is as though I am carving out a monument to my life and memory. Long after I am dead and gone, this book will sit in libraries across the country and in electronic archives for decades, maybe centuries to come. Perhaps some young person in a distant future will stumble upon my work, and my words will touch that person in unimaginable ways. The book might yet stand as my epitaph.
The problem is that I need between three and five years from the time I initiate my research until the book appears in print. That is a best-case scenario. By the time my book Coming For to Carry Me Home appears, about five-and-a-half years will have elapsed from my initial research until publication of the manuscript.
No one can sustain feelings of excitement for more than half a decade. Something else is required if I hope to persevere.
How many times have I stood buried in the stacks of the Woodruff Library at Emory University in Atlanta and asked myself, “why am I doing this?” How many times have I sat in front of my computer keyboard struggling to find the right words and experienced a crisis of faith? How many times have I read a book similar to the one I was writing and thought “this author is terrific; how can I compete? I am fooling myself to think I am in her league. I should abandon my project before I embarrass myself.” How many times have I been tempted to give up because the journey is too arduous and the commitment too deep and long?
How many times has my precious ache become my indifferent yawn?
I remember what Søren Kierkegaard says about boredom. He advises that we “proceed from the basic principle that all people are boring.” We get ourselves into trouble by trying to avoid boredom in ways that are profoundly boring. “Boredom is the root of all evil,” he writes.
Kings start wars because they are bored. Jet-setters travel the world seeking adventure because they are bored. People enter into business deals or play online games or attend sporting events because they are bored. People write books because they are bored. Eventually, these activities, while initially exciting, also become boring. A spouse cheats on a partner because the adulterer claims the partner is boring, although eventually the paramour becomes boring and must be cheated on as well.
It is all so predictable and…well, boring.
Kierkegaard is wise on the subject. “Since boredom advances and boredom is the root of all evil, no wonder, then, that the world goes backwards, that evil spreads. This can be traced back to the very beginning of the world. The gods were bored; therefore they created human beings. Adam was bored because he was alone; therefore Eve was created. Since that moment, boredom entered the world and grew in quantity in exact proportion to the growth of population.”
Anything worth doing requires commitment even in the face of boredom. I have learned this lesson from hard, bitter experience. In the absence of genuine passion and excitement, a person must develop inner resources, an ability to focus on today, here and now, and what can be accomplished in the present.
Boredom be damned.
When I begin working on a book, I recognize that I probably will spend years and years laboring in obscurity with no promise of a reward at the end. I know that I will experience many unforeseen difficulties and crises of faith. I will pass through innumerable episodes of ennui along the way. I will be tempted repeatedly to give up, to lay down my burden in pursuit of more exciting projects.
What can be done to break through the boredom?
My technique is deceptively simple to describe but exceedingly difficult to practice. After I prepare my outline, gather my research materials, and write my book proposal — which I usually do with a sense of excitement — I look at the calendar. “This month,” I tell myself, “I will write Chapter 1.”
A chapter typically encompasses 30 pages. Thirty pages may sound daunting, but think about it this way: Producing 30 pages in a month means that I must write an average of one page a day. Of course, some days I will be too busy to write anything. Nonetheless, if I can just write two or three pages at each sitting — which usually lasts between one and two hours — I can easily write 30 pages in a month. In a year, I will have written 12 chapters, and 12 chapters are almost a completed book. Add a few extra months for editing, proofreading, and general administrative work such as locating and purchasing photographs, and the book is finished. Call it 15 months.
Thirty pages — that’s not so bad. I can handle 30 pages. I don’t have to be Superman to write 30 pages. Jesus, give me strength — 30 pages. This becomes my mantra. Ommm. Ommm. Thirty pages.
Some days when I sit at the keyboard I am absolutely inspired. My creative juices flow unimpeded like water cascading over a broken dam. I can write forever. On other occasions, I may feel sick or worried about my financial situation or find myself in an unexpectedly grumpy mood. I may be bored.
Whatever my condition, I must produce a few pages. Brilliant prose or unmitigated dreck — I must write, write, write.
Ommm. Ommm. Thirty pages.
I don’t worry about the grammar. I don’t fix the spelling. I don’t obsess over the exact quote. The polish will come later. Just get something recorded on the page.
It is not all roses and sunshine. Gazing out my window, I spy on my neighbors. They seem to enjoy carefree, exciting lives while I keep my nose to the grindstone. They cook steaks on the grill while I scarf down Lean Pockets. They frolic in skimpy beach attire while I shamefully hide my fish-belly white, gelatinous midriff. They race motorcycles while I sit in my office chair, alone, surrounded by books and mountains of paper. They shake, rattle, and roll their carefully coiffed golden locks while I comb over the fist-shaped bald spot that threatens to spread across the remaining terrain of my embattled scalp.
I hate them. I hate them all.
Yes, I admit it. I long for the passion and excitement of my youth. I have become the paunchy, sagging, flatulent, predictable, dull gasbag who drains all the charisma from the room.
I am both bored and boring.
No matter. Shrug it off. I cannot be young and exciting and hip. Those days, if they ever existed for me, are gone. Wave ‘bye ‘bye. Accept my boring ways and deal with them.
Remember Wordsworth’s immortal verse:
What though the radiance which was once so bright
Be now for ever taken from my sight,
Though nothing can bring back the hour
Of splendour in the grass, of glory in the flower;
We will grieve not, rather find
Strength in what remains behind.
What remains behind is my ability to write despite my boredom.
I may not be able to recapture the excitement of yesterday, but I still have today and maybe tomorrow.
Am I a man who keeps his word, who labors no matter what tribulations exist, who doggedly persists despite all manner of temptation and boredom, who achieves what he set out to achieve?
Yes. Yes, I am. I made a commitment. I have given my word that I will see this project through to the end. And I to my pledged word am true.
Almost anyone can sustain a commitment based on a precious ache. The question is whether that person can persevere in the face of an indifferent yawn.
When it comes to personal relationships, I am still searching for the answers. When it comes to my writing, I have made the commitment. I am in it for the long haul. I will not be deterred. I will not be dissuaded. I will not be denied.
Precious ache or indifferent yawn — I am committed. Boredom be damned, I say.