“A gift of contentment” – Thoughts on the creative life from me and Cary Tennis, both

A gift of contentment – Erin J. Bernard

It’s a not-quite-warm Saturday, the first in June, and I’ve spent much of the afternoon pondering exactly what it is that has kept me from making progress on creative projects these past few months.

Mostly, I think, I’m just over-busy with freelance work, but there’s something else to it. Something is slowing me down. At the close of the first year of my third decade on earth, I can finally say with some certainty that it isn’t fear or self-doubt or self-loathing or any of that other nasty business that we so often blame our failures to launch various endeavors on. It’s something more like laziness, but no, not exactly. Impatience with my own entire creative process, I guess? Lately, I sit down to work on personal essays and I find I don’t have the stomach to subject myself to the mental acrobatics that finishing one entails. I know the metrics. I know it’s going to take 8-10 hours to get it just right, and even then, I’ll come back later and find typos. I know my shoulders are going to kink up and I’ll forget to eat dinner and I’ll miss important phone calls. I know my brain will ache from the effort and the sky will grow dark outside my window and my toes will curl and my fingertips will get numb and I know, too, that at the end I’ll rise up out of my shitty office chair, glorious, and then I’ll pace around the house and maybe down a glass of wine or two and then I’ll hit “publish” and my reward will be a sleep befitting the dead, and a knotty neck, and maybe 200 views and 10 likes and 2 comments, and the sense that I’ve done the thing I was really, really meant to do right in that moment. And how cool is that?

Instead, I distract myself with a never-abating pile of commercial writing work, with the preparing and consuming of elaborate dinners, with friends and beach runs and piles of unread magazines and white wine and vague fretting. All things that are perepherially essential to my general contentment, but none of them is THE thing. The thing I know I really, really must do, and keep on doing, if I want all the ball-busting and sometimes excruciating nonsense I’ve lived through to add up, at the very end, to something that has been inarguably worthwhile.

Today, while stepping out of my car in a grocery store parking lot, I happened to find a soggy little fortune just waiting for me in a rainbow-colored puddle of water and gasoline. It said this: “The near future holds a gift of contentment.” Which is actually kind of mysterious if you stop a second and consider it. Is the near future itself the gift? Or did I stumble upon some great, cosmic semantic riddle? When is the near future? Technically, you can’t ever really get to the near future, because by the time you catch up with it, it’s become the present, AKA, a gift. Or is that nonsensical? Maybe the gift is being content with the larger concept of Potentiality? Yes, I think that’s it, for me, today.

Also. A dream I had last night just came back to me. My mom had signed me up for a whole bunch of magazine subscriptions for my birthday and I was really not very happy about this for several reasons: one, she’d selected titles including “People” (NOOOOOO! For the love of God, no!) and some weird Betty Crocker cooking magazine, which I really, really didn’t want to be forced to read, and two: I just remember staring at the little pile of subscription cards she’d given me to announce the gift and thinking, “How will I ever make time for all of this?”

How, indeed? It is my current, inveterate struggle, this time/timing thing. That, and sorting through the semantic wreckage of my daily, digitally fraught existence for those precious bits of information that have true importance. That, and staying present, fully, in whatever task it is I’m working through, pushing myself to finish the messy parts and to gather the frayed strings that require gathering and to do it ALL with a deep and abiding sense of gratitude because, after all, I am perilously close to earning a full-time living as a writer, even if most of what I write is commissioned by other people, even if I’m sort of poor and my sweaters are faded at the elbows and my computer is haplessly outdated and I won’t be able to retire until never ever and perhaps not even then.

All that, and also this: digging deep to find the verve and self-discipline to keep on improving as a writer, and as a human being, and not in that order. To let myself be molded by the wisdom that surrounds me.

So anyway, today I was just sitting here thumbing through the current issue of “Sun” magazine and wondering if I should keep trying to work on this essay I’m writing about cardigans that is not going as well as I’d hoped (as it turns out, cardigans are a sort of boring subject to write and read about. Who knew?!) and I came across this bit of very, very sage advice from writer Cary Tennis.

He says:

“Just like you, I fucking beat myself up night and day until I’m black and blue because I’m not the guy who wrote “The Corrections” even though I couldn’t even read “The Corrections,” and I couldn’t even read “A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius” even though I’d like to be Dave Eggers, and why the fuck would I want to be Dave Eggers? Because I’m a sick fucker, that’s why, because I hate myself. And I have to stop doing that. I have to love myself.

I have to love myself because loving myself is the only thing that stands between me and suicide.

I love myself because I have to. I love myself because suicide is not an option. I love myself because other people love me and I’ve got no right. So I love myself immoderately and without delay. I love myself without recompense, without reason, without state sponsorship or licensing, without writing a proposal first or getting a grant, without getting dressed up first and taking a shower, without calling ahead to find out what time I should love myself, without buying a bottle of wine and some flowers first, without shining my shoes and clipping my nails. I love myself because of you. I love myself because there are people like you and me all over the world beating ourselves up because our sisters made more money, because our sisters are more perfect, because everybody loves our sister better. Jesus, woman! Love yourself! Take the afternoon off. Pick up something you’ve made that you love and admire it. Spend all day admiring it. Don’t criticize it. Don’t pick it apart. You made it. You are a creative person. You don’t control the market. You don’t even control your creativity. It’s a gift. Take care of it.

Love yourself because you’ve got no choice. It’s that or end up in an institution where they hand you your meds in a little cup from a window.

I know I’m not Dostoevski or even Paddy Chayefski. I’m a guy with a mortgage and hungry dogs. So I love myself because I have to, because the alternative is not an option. I talk to God unabashedly and say what’s up, you fucker, what fresh hell have you so graciously arranged for me today? I bless myself. I say bless you, fuckhead, bless you, my son, let’s see you make it through this day without driving off a cliff. Let’s see you smile in line at the grocery store and try to make small talk with the cashier. Let’s see you ride all the way from here to the ocean with murderous voices murmuring in your skull. Good morning, fuckhead, bless you for another day. What do you think this is, the Ritz?

The murderous voice says do you, Cary Tennis, take this life to be your lawful welded life and I say, I do. And do you, life, take this man to be your impoverished and humble obedient slave, to breath in and out until God knows what unholy combination of stress, disease, cell mutations, poison, decay and entropy force him finally into one last dark half-breath? And life says, Yeah, sure, why not. And so we go on, me and my weary bride of life, two ragged beggars hiding behind the Safeway looking for cans and cigarette butts.

Oh, I don’t know, I do exaggerate. I have a good if perilous middle-class existence. And so do you. But in our hearts, if we are artists, we are hungry and desperate. That is utterly normal. That is our condition. That is the condition of the creative person, to be hungry and desperate without moderation. Our job is to continue in our crazy journey with immoderate and unearned joy in our hearts and keep creating things, immoderately and without delay, desperately, beyond all reason.”

I really, really love this beyond all reason. That’s all.

Excerpted from “Dear Younger and Less Talented Sister,” a letter published in Carry Tennis’s advice column at Salon.com.To read the whole column, visit http://www.salon.com/2007/10/05/jealous_designer/


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