If I had a million dollars, I’d go to therapy and ask the therapist why it’s so hard for me to go to bed in the evenings. I put it off—and then I put it off—and then I put it off some more.
Every now and then, but only every now and then, I stumble by accident upon the solution, which is to stand up at some point before my hand is forced by physical collapse, and simply walk in the direction of the place where I intend to sleep, lay down, and declare myself to be in bed.
But it’s maybe one out of a hundred times that I manage to do this. The rest of the time, I’m powerless to resist the intertia that keeps me nailed to the office chair in front of the large computer, and solutions do not occur to me.
What’s the source of that weakness? I don’t know. I’m sure it’s the same thing that’s at the core of a great number of things that bother me about myself.
— § —
Fiction is dead.
This is clear to anyone that’s looking. No measurable audience of import any longer consumes it. The public is not aware of it. As a category, it’s barely remembered to exist.
It’s just not a thing any longer.
I think this fact is related to much of our modern, post-industrial society malaise.
Fiction, after all, is about stories. About narrative. And stories—narratives—are things that we don’t do any longer. Fiction belongs to the world of biography, a world of storied selves in which people understand their own lives and the lives of others in terms of a chronological sequence of events and the feelings and relationships that accompanied them.
That’s not the world that we live in today.
We don’t see ourselves as biographical creatures, as creatures with stories. We don’t understand ourselves in terms of chronology, or of events, or of relationships.
Our lives aren’t characterized by the wide range of things of import that happen. We don’t even inhabit that universe any longer.
We’re quantitative creatures. We’re bundles of metrics. Our achievements—graduate degrees, job titles, marriages, births—are no longer tales to be told; they’re data points to be aggregated.
We live in the age of analytics. No longer bundles of memories, we’re now bundles of facts and measurements. Averaged 3.3 in high school. Went to college on time, or maybe early, or maybe late. Not because anything—the because doesn’t matter; it’s a peripheral issue at best. There is no “because.” Scored some quantity on the GRE components. Interned at this company. Made partner at that company after only that many years.
Conversations, pivotal moments, drinks in bars, inspiring mentors—none of that stuff resonates with us any longer because it means nothing to our organizations or for our earning potential.
Fiction is dead because biography is dead. We don’t even maintain them for ourselves any longer.
When future generations try to understand our lives, we won’t leave behind ourselves diaries of thoughts and feelings or an oral history of family relationships.
We are leaving behind ourselves databases of achievements and statistics. We measure ourselves in numbers and facts.
Creatures that measure themselves in numbers and facts don’t read Dostoevsky or Mark Twain. They read The Week and The New York Times and The Nation and the latest analyst reports from Gartner and Deloitte.
The age of products and feature sets is also the age in which we ourselves are products and feature sets.
This is not a salutory development.
— § —
I lay in bed typing this in the midst of a general failure of discipline and initiative.
Yes, I have managed to put myself to bed.
No, I did not manage to do the things that I was supposed to do before I got there. Chief amongst them was to start (or even re-start) the novel I have intended to write for at least a decade now.
Parts of it exist. Maybe a hundred pages or so.
Many is the weekend on which I declare to myself at closing time on Friday that this weekend I will race to the finish. Because I know that I can do it. Only I don’t.
I never do.
Once business has closed on Friday, I declare my intention but say that I’ll do it over the course of Saturday and Sunday. Friday, of course, is to rest and recuperate.
Saturday morning I tell myself that I’ll start Saturday afternoon.
Saturday evening, having done nothing—or perhaps having wasted hours and hours “putting my tools together in preparation to begin” or some such nonsense—I’ll tell myself that I’ll start Sunday morning and work all day Sunday.
Sunday morning I manage to get out of bed and to walk and feed the dog, telling myself that I’ll absolutely race to the finish on Sunday afternoon.
Sunday afternoon I do the dishes and the laundry and console myself with the thought that after these are done, I can at least get one more chapter out Sunday evening as the last thing of the day.
And then—and then I put myself to bed. Rather than waiting until I’m exhausted.
Why don’t I write?
I know that I can do it.
I know that I can do a great many things. Just like going to bed. I just don’t do them.
— § —
If I had a million dollars, I’d go to therapy and ask the therapist not just why I never go to bed on time, but also why I don’t do any of the things that I want to do, and that I ought to do, and that I know that I can do.
And why I’ve always struggled to do any of these things.
Am I trying to punish myself for something?
Am I trying to punish others for something?
Is all of it psychobabble?
— § —
I can remember a particular uncle on my mom’s side that was abusive to me as a child. Violent. Physically abusive. Thrown furniture. Drowning attempts.
Nobody ever really took it seriously but me. The other adults trusted him to back off before serious harm was ever done, and in his defense, he always did. Now that I’m an adult I can see that the physical abuse was really a form of emotional aggression. He’d never have harmed me, but he did want me to suffer—to be afraid, to feel small.
That’s not a terribly huge in in the grand scheme of things.
The bigger sin really belongs to a great many other adults with whom I grew up or who were involved in my education, or my upbrining, or the local community in which I was raised.
The thing that I took away from my childhood about adults—and the thing that I remember most about most of them—is just what liars and hypocrites they were.
Not intentionally, of course—just as a matter of expedience. I’m sure they fully intended to keep their promises, or to make good on their word. I’m sure they meant every word that they said at the moments at which they said them.
But it never stuck.
Because at the end of the day, what all of them had in common was the fact that every word out of their mouths was fundamentally gutless. They were saying to me—me the child—whatever needed to be said in order to get themselves off the hook at the moment.
Sure—sure, I’ll remember to do that for you. Sure we can do that together. No, I don’t believe this. Yes, I do believe the other. Only they didn’t ultimately mean any of it, once time had passed, once the chips were down. They said the things they said because they were weak.
Just like I’m now weak about working on my novels.
I don’t take this to be a normal human failing. I don’t let all of us off the hook. There have been generations that were’t limp like this, that meant what they said and said what they meant and kept their word.
Oh yes, there are times when I definitely blame the Boomers. And there are times when I blame those who raised the Boomers. But of course they were, in turn and in their own right, traumatized by world wars the likes of which the world had never seen and could never have imagined.
Who is to blame?
There are times when I don’t think there’s any point in blaming anyone at all.
— § —
And so, here it is—I am laying here writing in bed, just not the thing that I’m meant to be writing, that I want to be writing, that I know that I can write.
And there is nobody that I can blame but myself, just as there is nobody for the generation that raised me to blame for my lack of faith in them but themselves.
The collapse of our institions is part and parcel with all of this, and with the collapse of the novel.
We don’t do the things that we mean to do any longer, and we don’t hold anyone responsible any longer—including ourselves—because we no longer track any of these details anyway.
We track the metrics. The little things, the day-to-day, the relationships, the stories, none of it is stored anywhere. None of it matters.
It’s why we graduate worthless people these days. I was one of them and I taught a bunch more of them besides. All that matters is the data point. All that matters is the degree at the end.
So the moment-by-moment—the reading the actual texts, the knowing the actual canon, the being on an actual journey, the developing into an actual wise soul—it isn’t tracked anywhere, or observed anywhere, and there is nowhere for it to make sense.
Hell, if I was a wise man it wouldn’t make any sense to me because I don’t understand what a wise man is and I don’t know what to do with a wise man anyway.
What matters is the data point.
Did he get the degree?
Did he wake up at the right time in the morning?
Did he continue to earn a good salary?
Did he keep his kids out of prison?
Those are the only things that matter, or that anyone understands.
The color of the snow or the taste of the confection or the scent of pine on the air while the Christmas carols played—that’s all the bizarre, foreign stuff of memory and narrative and fiction.
And fiction is dead.
I know because I’m lying in bed on time for a change to avoid having to try to write in that alien tongue.