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Thursday, 22 September 2016

The Writer and the Sock

The writer is perfect. All people are perfect, it is circumstances that are not—so the writer believes, and it is the basis all his work. Once, he thought otherwise; once, he attempted both to create a character and to solve his life in its entirety. But he grew to know stories so well and know himself so well that he began to discern, in turn, what sort of things he could do in his stories, and what sort of things he could not do—and one of the things he could not do was solve a person. At most he was able to solve a single problem for a person; it may have been the most important problem at the moment of the story, but this was a very different matter from being that character’s “life problem.” And so the writer has come to believe that one should not try to perceive problems on the level of personhood, on the level of entireties, but only on levels that can be dealt with directly and in a dramatisable manner. Yes, when it comes to his limits, and the limits of reality, the writer is wise. The writer is perfect.

But today the Doubt comes.

The writer is at his desk. His coffee is beside his computer mouse, where it steams and waits, like a companion. The writer drinks the one cup of black coffee every morning. He acknowledges that without it he would find the beginning difficult, yet it is his habit to glance down at his steaming, waiting companion once or twice before taking a sip, as though it was a temptation. This is his only stimulant, for—read no pride in it—he does not smoke. Though perhaps one may count the modest library of classics next to his desk: a glance in its direction enlivens him. As for counter-stimulants, this is easy: when he does not want to be disturbed by his wife of children, he hangs a sock on his office doorknob. But the writer does not often need to use the sock. Only once, in fact, when he wanted to be sure to get a thought down—a thought which turned into a story and which this morning, just now, he has discovered is missing from his computer files. Perhaps it was never saved in the first place. Not to worry. He drinks his coffee, sets his fingers on the keyboard. The writer is perfect.

The writer produces something every day on principle. The writer has not produced anything of significance yet, but the writer knows that if it will come then it will come and does not bite his nails over it. He has a realistic sense of his work’s value: to him, it is the most important thing he can do, but he knows that politicians, engineers, school teachers, and so on, have equally important work. The writer has no illusions that beauty, or at least beauty alone, will save the world. He is not taken in with his colleagues’ talk of art being “essential”; his stoic soul knows that nothing can be essential, not in the way that they hope. He thought differently once, to be sure, in those years he had tried to create those “problem characters.” But it had only led to suffering—such suffering that whenever the writer remembers this past, he is only glad to be out of it. Too much a mess of cravings and confusions, youth—this will come of the habit of making a project of everything, even the self. His flat in Berlin had been a romance: a mansard room of hardwood floorboards and windows that peeked above housetops, with the Berliner Dom just visible in the east. Here he had committed himself to “the Task.” His philosophy was this: certain moments, as soon as they are born, have difficulty; they struggle, they are the delicate runts of time’s litter and must be saved. Moments of insight, of joy, of Weltschmerz: it is to catch these, to bottle-feed them, that artists were invented. He would be one; he would be an artist. His characters would recall forgotten truths, rare exhilarations buried by the quotidian, and thereby fix the muddles they had made of their lives. But that was not all. Perhaps something analogous would happen to his readers. Perhaps by being a saviour of moments, he would be a saviour of more than moments... Ah, but precisely here the Doubt had come upon him—indeed, for a time, overcame him. The suffering began. Two years it lasted, during which nothing he wrote was good enough and only condemned him from the page. The project, quite simply, was too great, and weighed down by its immensity he could never quite gain leverage over his despair, could never get an objective glimpse of it. Everything became a searching for a way out, and so one day the Bhagavad Gita said to him, “You have the right to work, but for the work’s sake only. You have no right to the fruits of work. Desire for the fruits of work must never be your motive in working”—and he was cured. He saw himself for what he was: mood-dependent, unable to say from one day to the next whether the world was headed towards universal salvation or whether it was merely composed of bog and things sinking down into bog. What needless drama! Anyway, he had no need for it. He craved peace and the benefits of complacency. To produce without hope or despair, without commitment: this was the way, and the writer has stuck to it ever since. He is thirty seven years old now; he has lived eight years in this suburban house; he has great fondness for his wife and three kids. Yes, he has achieved balance, rhythm, the necessary quietude of soul, and the Doubt comes seldom. Today is an exception.  The writer is perfect.

The writer pauses to look at the dimples of shadow made upon his coffee mug by the sunlight. No words written and already it is empty. But, as we’ve said, the writer drinks only one cup a day. The writer is perfect.

The writer has learned to discern the various guises that the Doubt takes on, even when the Doubt is crafty—such as a certain period during which the Doubt did not appear and he began to wonder whether that was a bad sign, until he realized that that itself was the Doubt. Today it is the spectre of his lost word document, the one he had put the sock on the doorknob in order to write. Could it have been his breakthrough? Is his chance gone? Is it over for him? These are the thoughts that the writer, one by one, dismisses from his mind. The Doubt is tempting him to look upon his life, his own life, instead of the lives of his characters. It is tempting him to characterize himself as though he were in a story—and worse, as though his life, in its entirety, were a problem. Just what he has taught himself not to do. There is only darkness in this direction; only an endless muddle. The writer takes a breath. He returns to what he believes, namely, that everything may be boiled down to this: a character and his problem. They are two things, not one. People are perfect; circumstances are not. There is, in the difference between them, the writer’s salvation: all clarity is achieved in achieving the separation of the character from the problem. No, there need be no "quiet desperation" in the writer’s life, no spiritual condition at all. There need only be this: the writer and his problem. What is the problem? The Doubt. What is the Doubt? The thought that there might be something more than the writer and his problem. And so there it is, the solution already. He thinks to himself, in the whelming joy of conquest: I am glad to have had my chaotic youth, and even my Doubt, for it all gives me something to write about. The thought gives him further momentum. Such a thought has power, for in it all of life, even the Doubt, is subsumed: it turns reality on its hinge, and suddenly there is nothing in life that cannot be written about. The writer’s life is again organized. He may create characters and their problems. He types a word. He types another word. His excitement mounts. Perfect.

The writer hears a knocking on the door. That’s his wife, wanting something. He listens. Okay, he thinks, and gets up. But then he frowns. He reaches down and he removes one of his socks. Yes, people are perfect, circumstances are not. There is only the writer and his problem. He opens the door; he glances apologetically at his wife. Her face is distressed. He slips the sock over the doorknob and closes it again. There. The Doubt is again conquered. He will keep to his work. He will write a little every day, without investment in the outcome. So long as he’s writing. And he is. Look, even now. Does not matter what about: he is writing! The writer is perfect.


  1. The last paragraph is jarring! Is it a case of the one fundamental presupposition, hoe er laudable, getting exposed?

    The piece was entertaining as well as illumining.

    1. Meant to say "however laudable"

    2. I was hoping that the narrator’s omniscience would set up the exposure somewhat, since he seems not to be operating on the writer’s principle. If the writer is perfect, it is only in relation to certain questions; on the whole, there seems to be a weakness of nerve about him, and my thought was that it was this weakness that led the writer to formulate the principle in the first place. It’s a case of confusing the big things by solving the small things. Though I do feel sorry for the guy.