Wednesday, May 28, 2014

Craig Reinbold in conversation with Lucas Mann's "On Writing Young"

I’ve been thinking about Lucas Mann’s post On Writing Young a lot since it popped up here at the Essay Daily, mostly from a half-heartedly (I’m still being defensive, apparently) defensive posture. Like Lucas, “I freely admit that I’m oversensitive to the issue.” We’re all a little oversensitive. Him, because he’s young. Me, because I am not quite as young as he is. You see, I am 32, outside the range of potential essayistic greatness suggested here; the ship has sailed. I am not on it. Of course that’s not really what Lucas says in this post. Even if that is what he’s actually saying that’s not what he’s actually saying. Right.  

As best I can tell, writing young = writing from a place of uncertainty, immaturity, from inside the process of maturing; with an abundance of sincerity; writing from inside experience rather than distanced from it; with so much exuberant inquisitiveness; writing totally afraid that you’ll never succeed yet somehow unafraid to fail—with that kind of fuck-the-world swagger; openness; generosity; heart; writing with humility; writing with hubris; embracing so many contradictions.

Lucas writes, “I do think that immaturity, or at least the process of maturing, is a potentially riveting, truly essayistic place to write from. After all, what is young adulthood but a hybrid time of life, pushing toward and failing to live up to a set of expectations? The very same can be said about the essay form. When we embrace that tension, instead of fleeing from it, real, valuable work is done. We get writers not only analyzing what has ended, but also sorting out how to begin.” 

This does seem to be the place so many great essays come from. But what really does this have to do with one’s age? Certainly not everything.

“Young adulthood” as described here may as well be one’s teens or late 20s, early 30s, middle age, 45-64, retirement, the nursing home years… Seems like six one way, half a dozen the other. That sense of uncertainty described above, that tension between success and failure, the tension of impending endings and “sorting out how to begin”—we may as well call this life. Or at least it resembles my life. Possibly I’m behind the curve. More likely I am one of the multitudes smack in the middle of it, which is to say: This is probably the case for most of us.

When we embrace that tension, instead of fleeing from it… Maybe writing young has less to do with one’s age, and more to do with one’s ability to maintain that tensional essayistic tenor. Of course here I wonder if maybe the quantitatively young are somehow better at maintaining that tension, the tension that great essaying depends on. I suspect it has to do with one’s place in life, which is certainly related to, though obviously not dependent on how old one is. Writing young, I think, has less to do with years, and more to do with simply being free

It’s possible our pace slows a little as we round thirty. Maybe that hungry striving drive just isn’t as hungry. Maybe we don’t push our ideas as hard, or ourselves—because we know how much work shit takes and have failed enough to second-guess the effort. Maybe we start to think we might actually be as smart as our (thoroughly revised and revised) essays make us out to be, and maybe there’s a pressure to not seem so…naïve, i.e young. Maybe one’s reputation suddenly depends on credibility, on having figured shit out. Maybe it’s not as easy to immerse oneself in a project because suddenly all kinds of people (bosses, spouses, kids) are depending on you to keep the world turning, to pay the bills, entertain a client, get to the dentist, iron your work shirts, clean the bathroom, to be more available, and you can write essays, fine, but only after everything else. With no time to waste, there is no room for failure here. So write essays, fine, but be practical. Keep your head down. Play it safe. Play it safe, though safe is almost always boring.

—free to take risks. To open oneself completely. To fully commit to a project. To go all in. And maybe this does become more difficult as we get older. Or not so much as we get older, but as our roles in the world change, which usually comes with getting older. If nothing else, being young seems to lend itself to being, simply, productive.

Maybe this is why there are so many great young essayists. And only a handful of older ones, and the older ones are so often cushioned by academia, with ample salary and time and resources. Montaigne (still) may as well be the model for the modern essaysist. (See also this recent correspondence from Bonnie J. Rough.) What kind of fortune do we have to draw from while we work? What kind of tower shields us from worldly responsibilities? To whom are we beholden outside ourselves? Maybe this idea of writing young really does expire at some age. Not because we outgrow our youthfulness, per se, but because we grow into so many more pressing responsibilities. A more rigid hierarchy of priorities.

Say I have three ideas a day for projects/essays. Each is weighed against: time spent away from the job that pays the insane gas bill; time away from my wife; time away from my son. Is seeing a great idea to fruition worth, say, ten hours away from him, just now as he’s starting to pull himself up and walk around? It almost never is. It never is, unless I convince myself it might lead to something bigger (publication, award, fellowship, $$$ = more time to write), which it never does, not really. And writing with some lame goal in mind (publication, award, fellowship, $$$ = more time to write) will sap the life out of any project. You’ve got to go all in, write an essay for its own sake—or why bother?

I tend to be an all-in or all-out kind of guy. If I can’t invest everything, I don’t want to give anything. If I can’t give 100%, well, I’ll give my 100% to something else. If I can’t research and write and revise an essay a week, well, fuck, fuck essays. Seriously, I don’t want to half-ass this business. If I can’t go all in, then I’m done. Why bother writing at all? Fuck writing. I’ll do something else. I’ll take up welding.

Deep, deep, dramatic SIGH.

Why bother at all?

I am 32, with a wife and son, and I spend my days in a cubicle. I may never essay again. Not in any grand (read: meaningful) kind of way. Not the way I essayed when I was 29.

This is obviously an unhelpful line of thinking, but I can’t help myself. I seem to be experiencing a moment of despair. All I did was try to get down some thoughts about writing young. Tried to be sincere, inquisitive, honest, open. And somehow this is where we’ve landed. That’s the genre for you. Fucking essays.

I’m off to take a pout break. Get some coffee. See you in a minute.  

Okay, I’m back. (Another effect of age: I’ve had to stop with the caffeine, so I’m drinking decaf. It’s been 6 weeks. The first two days I took a righteous pounding, and I miss that intensity my sixth cup of the good stuff used to give me, and it’s more difficult to focus without it, but whatever, doctor’s orders. I take my decaf with a quarter-inch of Hazelnut-flavored creamer, one of my life’s newest pleasures, this coffee candy; it’s important to adapt.)

Truth is, this live free or die! mindset is itself a holdover from my youth, from those teenage years of pushing against anything that might push back. Truth is, as I’ve gotten older, I’ve come to recognize a more manageable way of doing things.

When I was seventeen I started doing pushups before school. Three sets of 25. Then some crunches. Gradually I added reps, added exercises. Two years later I was doing ten sets of 30 and 25 minutes of abs. Everyday. Every day I would push myself as hard as I could, and as I got stronger and fitter the problem I faced was that continuing to push myself so hard involved constantly upping reps, doing more, investing more time and energy. It finally got to be too much. I couldn’t keep it up. Had to stop. So I quit cold turkey, and this led to all kinds of problems. Bouncing from one extreme to another never works very well.  

Eventually I realized: life is long. It just keeps going, long after (like John Mellencamp says) you turn twenty, after twenty-five, after thirty. Ideally it keeps going for a really, really long time. And when it comes to doing pushups, unless you’re training for some event, you’re training for life. Workouts should be tailored accordingly. None of this burning out in two years. You’ve got to pace yourself for the long haul, for decades. The trick is not to do something uber-intensely every day, but rather, simply, to do something every day. Consistently. Sustainably. Three sets of 25 pushups isn’t a lot, but 75 everyday for the rest of my life—that shit adds up. This is a metaphor. This is wisdom, maybe. In any case, it has taken getting older to get me here.

My 28-year-old self wants to write 100 essays this year or none at all! But I am 32 now, and I know 100 isn’t in the cards. Three would be a dream. Even two might be too many. But writing one essay this year probably won’t kill me. Writing one essay a year—like, seventeen words a day, tossed out between work emails—is doable. Anyway, this is a good place to begin. Rather, this is a place to begin again, as we all begin again over and over. After all, what is this but one more “hybrid time of life, pushing toward and failing to live up to a set of expectations”? And “when we embrace that tension, instead of fleeing from it, real, valuable work is done.”

Craig Reinbold's recent work appears in Brevity and The Rumpus. He helps curate the Essay Daily.

1 comment:

  1. Having surpassed my 20s (and 30s) I find that I kind of enjoy the reverse-ageism in which the essay wallows. In a country obsessed with--and let's just say dominated by--youth, it's nice to have something to do in which being over 30 doesn't mean we're relegated to the bench. I think you're right on about life freedom vs. just "youth." And I also think it is possible to write great work when we're young. But I do think the seasoning of age is important. When I was 25 I thought I was a great writer. Of course I thought many things that didn't hold up to the test of time. I can see the initial promise of that era, but also realize that what I wrote then can't hold a candle to what I did in my 30s.