The other night, I sat in a crowded studio to witness an out-of-this-world performance by a pianist and a poet, tag-teaming each other with their respective talents. The former blew me away with what she was doing on the keys; the latter, although interesting, suddenly threw me back to a decisive moment from the semi-remote past.
As the wordsmith sat up on stage and delivered his lines in what could only have been a mode of enunciation achieved only after several rounds of attentive preening and vocal experimentation, there I was, stuck once again in a seminar on Martin Luther. I don’t remember what we were going over; we’d taken a good, hard look at the 95 Theses the week before, and maybe we were exploring some of the theologian’s more creative insults or his selling out the peasants when they demanded some rights from landlords. What is still crystal-clear, though, is an eager boy’s hand shooting up and asking for clarification, and the instructor, without looking at anything or taking even a nano-second to hesitate, referencing a particular thesis out of the above-mentioned document, quoting it, and then going into a lengthy explication. It was impressive– and I realized in that moment that I had zero desire to devote the amount of time and narrow focus it would take me to achieve anything similar to what had just transpired, at least not in the service of professional scholarship. Hell, Luther wasn’t even this professor’s specialty, and for all his trained talent at rapid-fire sorting through brain files and applying the most appropriate specimen to an out-of-the-blue question, he really didn’t seem satisfied with life at all, and I knew, in fact, that he was lonely.
Of course, it took me years and a whole other degree program to admit to the truth of the instinct that had hit me in the gut that day, but that’s another story. What that memory flash signaled for me a few days ago was just what it would take (other than actually completing a written project) to get me up on that stage, with a slew of published books and an in-the-know audience ready to praise them, and maybe buy a copy of something: namely, constant slogging through and keeping up with literary circles and scenes; maintaining an organized, systematic method of submitting to and tracking pieces’ fates at various outlets; finding an agent; cultivating a public personality; marketing myself… It all left an exhaustingly bad taste in my mouth. And in line with my considerations of late regarding the OK-ness of not writing for publication, and with a recent post up at Brain Pickings about Umberto Eco’s and/or Nassim Nicholas Taleb’s anti-scholarly nature, that transport back to a past moment of insight made massive heaps of sense. Finally, even though the imagined outcomes would not have been necessary results of chasing two different dreams, just as I was made ill at the thought of sharing my professor’s fate of being a sad knowledge machine, here, too, I was repulsed at having to turn into a version of this hip word-boy, if that was the price of literary success.
All this speculation may simply be a case of protesting too much, and/or letting myself off the hook. But sometimes, the gut is infallible.