When I was in college I wrote zero novellas and rarely even a short story. Instead I wrote first pages to longer pieces that would not and could not exist. I put them each into a file cabinet, where the ink bled and intermingled, emerging as one embarrassing Rorschach blot. But despite my performance issues as a young writer, I soothed myself with the knowledge that there were very few twenty year-old novelists.
Now that I am thirty-five that comfort has grown tepid. My production has grown inconsistent, the tone of my longer pieces warbling as I patch them together fifteen minutes at a time. I am no longer one author, but a collective: one paragraph written by the hollow, pre-dawn Dubuque, the next the amalgam of a distracted Dubuque scribbling post-it notes at his desk. The result is often a mosaic, the kind one needs to stand far away from.
It’s hard not to think of the aging curve, reflecting on these facts: the gentle descent, the almost loving touch of attrition. Granted, the curve for writers is a much softer slope than the graph above. But it’s particularly noticeable now, when so many of our favorite baseball players are in the Best Shape of their Lives. It’s become cliché to note the cliché, but there’s also an underlying sadness to the fiction. It’s never the young who proclaim their physique; they don’t need to. Only the old think about feeling well, desperately cleave to the hypnotherapy of positive thinking. The alternative is the abyss.
Yesterday Lunch Dubuque gave up on writing and read an essay about Samuel Johnson, the greatest NotGraphs author of the eighteenth century. For all his biographies and quotations, Johnson had the kind of catalogue that made Oscar Wilde look like a hard worker. He also made Joe West look like Scott Podsednik, though he lived to 75 and people still remember him, so he didn’t do too badly. Yet despite the fame and the admiration he received even in his lifetime, despite the endless dinners and speeches and cheap sermons he wrote for cash, despite all the time he wasted, Johnson was always worried that he didn’t accomplish enough. He didn’t live up to his talent.
I haven’t, either. Nor have the vast majority of people, to some degree or another, though most of us make out just fine. Writers have it particularly rough, since writing is often times the opposite of happiness, in concept and in practice, and yet not writing is also the cause of unhappiness. It’s kind of lame that way.
That’s nothing compared to the baseball player. Writers can stumble onto a phrase, or a philosophy, without a moment’s notice. Writers can have peak years. We also have another advantage: we’re free to redefine ourselves at a whim, create new ideals and values; whereas the standards for success in baseball are as hard as diamond. The baseball player might have a five hit day, or make a shutout out of nothing, but the averages arrive all too soon. Over 162 games, time polishes off nearly all the rough edges, until everything is exactly, terribly, as it should be.
So when when Chone Figgins stares into us with his pale, empty eyes and mouths the words “best shape life”, try not to scoff. He has to say this, has to believe he can be more. Otherwise, he is in descent.
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