Illiterate: Entry #4
I studied French for about seven years in grade school. By now, I’ve forgotten nearly all of what I learned, but one aspect of the language stayed with me: “time,” and how it’s defined. The French make a distinction between, say, the infinite concept of time (temps) and a specific hour of the day (heure)–so, to ask, “What time is it?”, you would say, “Quelle heure est-il?” It’s a kind of temporal compartmentalization that I wish I had the discipline to subscribe to. But for me, time, whether it be an hour, a moment (moment), or an occasion (fois), always exists on a continuum–an ever-plaguing one.
Tick. Tick. Tick.
It’s March already. At this point in the year most people have abandoned their resolutions, but I’ve been diligent about sticking with my promises. I think that has to do with the fact that my resolutions are ultimately born out of personal necessity. For example, last April I gave up meat and, despite the elitist ring to it, committed myself fully to a pescetarian diet as an emotional response to a particularly devastating breakup. This winter I grew a lumberjack beard because there was a part of me, an oft-ignored part, that wanted to see any face but my own in the mirror. And for the new year, I vowed to eat responsibly, bike obsessively, floss daily, socialize occasionally, sleep soundly, and read and write consistently because I felt disappointed that I had let all of those crucial behaviors fall by the wayside.
But with every commitment I take on, I struggle with time management. If I get a full eight hours, I can’t stay up and write, which is when I feel the most focused. If I eat as responsibly as I would like, I can’t rely on restaurants and pubs as venues for friendly hang sessions. (Conscious calorie counting takes every bit of enjoyment out of eating out.) And if I’m biking to and from work rather than taking the train, that’s just one hour less that I am able to read. I can understand how Stephen King has time to write two thousand words every day. I can understand how Jillian Michaels has time to work out every day. And I understand how Alton Brown has time to make healthy, home-cooked meals every day. But how the hell does a normal person with a full-time job have time to do all of these things?
That’s only part of it, though. The heure is hard enough to handle, but the thing that looms over me like a thunderous black cloud, the incessant ticking that maddens me like Poe’s pounding tell-tale heart, is the temps. Months ago, I submitted a piece to McSweeney’s entitled “A Graduate With an English Degree Pretends to Still Be an Avid Reader.” As with a dozen of my previous submissions, they rejected it, but the reply email read, “This doesn’t fail to amuse, but I’m afraid I’m going to pass. Thanks for considering us for it. Hope you’ll keep trying.” My first thought was, Hey! Progress! But then I realized that I was really no closer to making my mark than I was before I sent in that piece.
I’m a month away from my 28th birthday, years out from my unfruitful degree(s). Over time, I have accepted that I am a late bloomer and that I shouldn’t evaluate myself against the timeline of others, but the clock keeps ticking and time remaining is finite. It’s hard for me to exist in the creative world and not compare myself to other creatives. Relatively speaking, 27 is young, but it’s not 22. Unlimited potential has given way to measured expectations. By 27, Orson Wells had written, directed, and starred in Citizen Kane; Zuckerberg, born more than a month after me, is officially a billionaire. I mean, shit, there’s an entire club of legendary artists who died at the age of 27.
It’s obvious that I’ll miss the cutoff. And maybe that’s an important thing to come to grips with–that I’m not a boy-genius, that I’m not a natural. But that reality runs counter to encouragement of our youth. We all had heroes growing up, people we aspired to be like–for me, there were many: Jordan, Walt Disney, Roger Ebert, Martin Yan, Woody Allen (the writer/director, not the man), Raphael (the ninja turtle, not the artist), and nearly ad infinitum. The harsh truth, though, is that I never had a chance to be like any of them. That kind of greatness is rarer than precious metal and inborn as if anointed at birth.
But you can hardly teach a child to just aim lower. I wonder, at what point on the continuum do people acknowledge their averageness? Do all people learn that lesson or are some fortunate in their ignorance? For the people who do accept this truth, what does it feel like?
Greenberg, Noah Baumbach’s film about crippling anxiety brought on by unexceptionalism, has a great line near the end that goes, “It’s huge to finally embrace the life you never planned on.” I tried to think about what that moment felt like for me, but I couldn’t come up with anything. To be honest, I’m not so sure that I’ve gotten there yet. It would feel like a betrayal of that boy in awe of so many heroes to say that the moon was no longer a reasonable target.
Joshua Covell is a New Hampshire transplant who loves the big city lights and a state that completely sidesteps the national political spotlight but pines for good seafood and a proper time zone. He is a writer, editor, and co-founder of STFU, Internet.
Wow. I am amazed by several things in this essay.
1) The writing itself is exquisite. I can see your training at work, and I appreciate the muscularity of your prose.
2) You studied French for SEVEN YEARS? I am so impressed!
3) At 27, I had my big mid-20s crisis as a writer. The big one. My first book had come out three years before, and my second book was not working out. At all.
Here’s the good news, as far as I can see it— 30 was easier. And 35 was like an over-bright dream. I prefer being a writer in my 30s versus a writer in my 20s— I’m bringing something to the table that I did not have in my pockets ten years prior.
I know what I just said may not mean a thing to you right now? Instead, let me add this little note: Granta Magazine, (also the “youthful” publishing subsidiary of Penguin), considers “young writers” as any talent under 40.
Granta has a HUGE circulation.
You’ve still got time to be a wunderkind. I promise.
Courtenay, thanks so much for the response. And thanks even more for the support. It’s frustrating to hear words of encouragement from uber-famous writers with a dozen best-sellers under their respective belts, but to hear those words from someone who actually suffered crises gives me hope.
It’s like our own writerly rendition of “It Gets Better”. I’ve definitely got some time before I’m 40, but sometimes I feel like I blinked on a swing set and opened my eyes to 20 more years of wear and early onset male pattern baldness. That continuum can seem downright miniscule.
I read this when you posted it and I’ve been thinking about it a lot because I’ve thought about this a lot over the past few years because I’m kind of in the same boat. You’re really touching on three completely different things: fame, success, and content-ness (not happiness because if anyone is truly “happy” that often they’re most likely overmedicated). You need to stop and take a minute to separate those three things in your head and figure out which of them you’re striving for. It’s very rare someone has them all, and the worst thing is that they’re all self-measured. Zuckerberg is no doubt famous and successful, but is he content? Probably not or he’d leave us the fuck alone and not mess with our privacy so much. Was anyone in the 27 club actually content, or for that matter, did they feel successful? Probably not. Just because the planet hasn’t acknowledged you yet (fame), doesn’t mean that you’re not a natural (success?). Welles may have had all that by 27, but he’s just one man. Who got his big break because he happened to narrate a radio show that caused mass panic. It doesn’t mean there aren’t hundreds of successful writer/directors out there plugging away doing what they love at age 30, 40, 50. People pay attention to weird things. Like Snooki. Being acknowledged and glamourized for what you’re doing is solely a matter of luck. Talent plus right place at the right time with the right connections. There are millions of people out there who are simply fabulous at what they’re doing, but just haven’t hit the right combination of variables yet to propel them into the public eye. Just because you haven’t been acknowledged by people on a grand scale or gotten that perfect job yet doesn’t mean that what you’re doing isn’t worthwhile or ‘good’. Separating other people’s opinions out from your evaluation of your self-worth is, what I’ve found, to be the first step to content-ness and building your own success. Unless what you WANT from life is fame, that acknowledgement for what you’re doing, to become a household name like Disney or Jordan. Which may very well end up in you becoming a drug addled alcoholic that ends up on the main page of Perez for mooning the paparazzi. Or in Jordan’s case, turning into the world’s biggest asshole. And I just lost my train of thought. Oh well, I really don’t think I had a way to conclude this anyway since I’m still struggling with it myself.
Great points, Amanda. But this writing career is a tricky one because, at least for me, fame, success, and contentment are closely connected. Presumably, as with any career, contentment comes with success, but with the arts, I think that success can’t come without at least some level of fame. Now, I’m not looking to be recognized on the street, but to have a readership and a following would be a career achievement. And until I create some great work that gains an audience (which, to me, would equal success and fame in equal, moderate measure), I’m not sure I could ever truly be content.