StreetLegalPlay by Kyle Thomas Smith

Permission to Waste My Life

Posted in Uncategorized by streetlegalplay on May 16, 2014

 By Kyle Thomas Smith

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Here and now, I’m doing something my younger self would have sooner died than done.

I’m saying die.

I’m saying die to my old ambitions.

I’m waving the white flag. I’m surrendering, abandoning all hope of accomplishment as a writer.

I’m already 40 anyhow. It’s not like there’s still time to be a wunderkind.

And in doing this, I feel extraordinary relief. It’s as though all shackles and tethers have fallen off me.

I simply want to write because I love writing.

I don’t care if I ever write another book. I’ll still fill up notebooks.

I don’t care if I ever again get published. I can publish myself, I’ll still blog.

When I was 26, I went to a psychic of some renown. It was a stupid thing to do. A couple years before, I’d read one of her books, which was all about how to get this, that and the other thing you want from the universe. We were living in the same city, the psychic and I, and I’d looked up her home address and had written her a letter in which I’d let her know that I found her pseudo-spiritual approach way too materialistic and acquisitive. (Looking back, it was pretty bitchy of me, but I was only 24 at the time of postmark and as such, felt an inordinate need to be the false-prophet police.) Then I experienced a dismal failure in my life and went looking for answers, so I went to see her.—It was dumb. Dumbest thing I’ve ever done so far in my life, which is saying something. But I did it, and it made no sense, but I did it, so…SO…

In her books, she brags about how people schedule a year in advance to see her, but when her assistant told her I’d called, she’d scheduled time for me the next day. She took my money at the door, took one look at me and she said she knew I was a writer. (Gee, how’d she guess that? Could it be that I’d said so in my letter?—The letter, the proverbial elephant in the room, which—plot spoiler—neither one of us mentioned even once in the session we went on to have.) I told her I didn’t feel I’d gotten far enough as a writer by the ripe old age of 26. Once she saw I had a complex about it, she started screaming, “YOU HAVE WASTED COLLOSAL AMOUNTS OF TIME!…YOU HAVE WASTED COLLOSAL AMOUNTS OF TIME!” I told her I was writing night and day. “No you’re not,” she said. Well, yes, I was but…her word was law in her chambers.

She took some other slaps at me, pushed my money deeper into her pocket and showed me the door.

Karma is a faulty system. They say, if it doesn’t get you this lifetime, it’ll get you in the next. That’s not soon enough. I’ve lived to see this woman go on to great things, and it’s not fair. By now, she’s even conned the top New Age gurus in America into announcing her as their personal advisor. (I’m sure she tells them just want they want to hear, and I’m sure they introduce her to all the right people in publishing, especially when her stopped clock gets something right.) Her regular clients swear by her. Just ask her. She writes book after book about how she’s always batting a thousand setting each of them straight. Jim Jones’ followers swore by him too. Look how they ended up.

Still: “YOU HAVE WASTED COLLOSAL AMOUNTS OF TIME!” That got to me. She hoped it would.

Today I wonder what she’d say about a friend of mine. He and I have known each other for years. He’s in his late thirties and works at a coffee shop I go to a lot. (Usually, I name the names of people and places but he might be reading this, so I have to be discreet.) He moved here from New England (how’s that for specific?) ten years ago. He thought being in New York would spur him on as a painter. He took a café job so he wouldn’t drain his brain working for the Man, and he was fine with scraping by on what was left in his tip jar if it meant he could devote more of himself to his art. Problem is, he had to work twice the hours he would in any other city if he was going to make rent. The years went by this way. And a couple weeks ago, he told me he’s moving back home. He says he gave it ten years here but he’d put all his energy into making ends meet and hasn’t produced any art. He’d hope to be a name by now. Not only did it not happen for him, it really didn’t happen for him. I don’t think his story is so uncommon. It might even be the norm.

I’d always known him to be chipper at any hour of the day. He always had a smile on and always seemed to be jumping from espresso machine to cash register to ice-maker to sandwich station. He never seemed to be kicking himself like I do, despite myself, about not living up to some imaginary standard.

Looks can be deceiving, though. You never know what’s going on in people’s heads. We’ve been talking over the past couple days and I’ve seen a whole other side to him. His head hangs now. As his days tick down at the coffeehouse, he moves a lot slower behind the counter. And he’s talking frankly at last, “I have no career plan past moving back.” Worse, the universe has set it up so that, as he spends his last weeks with the friends he’s made here, he keeps running into So-and-So, who came here at the same time he did and now he or she is a rip-roaring success. He says he’s got nothing to show for his years in New York.

My friend says he plans on going back to painting once he’s moved back in with his folks. He says there’ll be nothing else to do up by where they live. He’s going back so he can finally do what he came out here to do. I said, “Moving back might be just the thing for you.”

It wasn’t just a pep talk. It plain made sense. After ten years in New York, he’s seen a lot, experienced a lot and interacted with all sorts. He’s not the same New England sprout he was when he first turned up. As long as he keeps going at his canvasses, the life experience he’s racked up will transform into images and colors and concepts, far more nuanced than they would have been had he not taken his chances here. From where I stand, these past ten years weren’t a waste of time for him. And yet the grifter I’d gone to see 14 years ago might have delighted in tearing him apart: “YOU HAVE WASTED COLLOSAL AMOUNTS OF TIME!”; when, in fact, he was broadening and deepening.

Let’s recall: even the experience of shame is valuable if we transform it into wisdom—and the experience of wisdom is more valuable still if we transform it into creative expression.

Why, oh why, can’t I always view my condition as I view my friend’s?

And my friend despairs as he looks at his age—a baby’s age to those who’ve lived long enough, and it will be a baby’s age to my friend if he’s lucky enough to live long enough, but I understand—boy, do I ever understand—that his age might seem “up there” to him if he’s looking at his current age with a teenage mind, which we too often do when it’s ourselves we’re looking at.

I told him what I try telling myself when wrestling back my own inner critic: THE WORLD NEEDS LATE-BLOOMERS. It’s my battle cry. The world needs us late-bloomers if only to show other late-bloomers that their own personal prime might be well beyond the age dictated by the social metric. The world needs late-bloomers so that other late-bloomers might have hope.

Now, of course there’s hope and there’s false hope, but I don’t care what the nihilists say, there is hope—and I have every reason to believe there’s hope for my friend.

And yet I struggle to find the same hope for myself. Julius doesn’t struggle to see that there’s hope for me. It’s as evident to him as day turning into night, and night turning into day.

Julius gives me a swim-team analogy: Don’t Look at the Lane Next to You, It’ll Only Slow You Down. I give the same analogy to my friend and he gives me a free iced coffee for giving him that analogy. It makes total sense.

It makes sense to me now as I write this. But how often I have to remind myself!

And yet I maintain what I started out saying: I surrender.

But let’s talk about what that means.

I have a different way about me. Frankly, it’s un-American. That is to say, it’s organic, not manufactured and mass-produced. It’s not the Steven Pressfield, War of Art model.—I can’t get with that at all, though I understand why others can. (There’s a machismo and bravado to it that’s particularly attractive to straight men, though some gay guys I know get with it too.)—Mine is more the Natalie Goldberg model. If you’ve tried her and she’s not for you, I understand. If you think her compulsive free-writing method is a waste of time, I understand. It’s a process that requires tremendous patience, just like fallow fields require tremendous patience and tremendous care, but in my own experience, it’s a model that’s yielded the best I’m capable of producing.

My mom died a little over a year ago. My dad died this year, less than a year after my mom. One of my brothers asked me if I wanted anything from their house. I said all I wanted were some boxes of notebooks my folks let me put in their crawl space before I moved to New York, more than a decade ago. Over a three-year period in my twenties, I’d been filling up notebooks with stream-of-consciousness free-writing a la Natalie Goldberg and had even run writing workshops around it. I’d forgotten how many notebooks I’d filled up in those days. My brother found the boxes in their crawl space and sent them to me via UPS from Chicago. All in, they weighed over 140 lbs.

Since moving to New York, I’ve continued the process and have probably filled up at least three or four times as many notebooks.

Yet so far, I’ve only gotten one book published. I’ve amassed many personal essays but do they quite hang together as a book? Julius says I should probably get about five or six more finished before we go looking for an agent. To do that, I either need more life experience or I need to dig even deeper for material than I’ve dug so far.

If the tonnage of notebooks I’ve filled hasn’t given you enough of a sense of how deeply I’ve been digging, please also note that I meditate two to three hours a day outside of writing. “And wadd’it getcha?” I could hear my Midwest roots barking, and yet it’s gotten me all that I’ve been able to get done.

It’s not laziness on my part. I’m showing up every day. I’ve done it the other way. I have tried the Steven Pressfield way of trying to grind material out of whole cloth but nothing worthwhile has ever come of it. I’ve read the cute quote by W. Somerset Maugham about how he can’t work without the muse but luckily the muse shows up for him every morning at 9 o’clock, and there’s Flannery O’Connor’s line about how she’s at her desk even if the muse isn’t.

And let me tell you, I’m there too—every single day—whether the muse is there or not, but so far there’s no War & Peace by Kyle Thomas Smith. I’m simply gathering meditations for a compost pile that I hope will grow a garden, and in my experience, it can take many years.

And I often despair as my friend despairs.

The best literary analogy I’ve ever found for this dilemma is in the South African dramatist Athol Fugard’s elderly character, Helen, in his play, The Road to Mecca. At some point in her old age, Helen had found that she has a gift for sculpture, so she continues to sculpt Gothic images that send shockwaves throughout her community, most of whom are superstitious and view the sculptures as some strange voodoo. Consequently, they view Helen as a mad woman, possessed of evil powers. A young woman friend, Elsa, comes to visit Helen. Elsa says she sees that Helen has not finished her newest series. “Roll up your sleeves and get on with it,” she tells Helen.

Helen responds with the following (redacted) monologue:

It’s not as simple as that, Elsie…You see, that’s the trouble. It’s still only just an idea I’m thinking about. I can’t see it clearly enough yet to start to work on it. I’ve told you before, Elsie, I have to see them very clearly first. They’ve got to come to me inside like pictures. And if they don’t well, all I can do is wait…and hope that they will. I wish I knew how to make it happen, but I don’t. I don’t know where the pictures come from. I can’t force myself to see something that isn’t there. I’ve tried to do that once or twice in the past when I was desperate, but the work always ended up a lifeless, shapeless mess. If they don’t come, all I can do is wait…I try to be patient with myself, but it’s hard…suppose that I’m waiting for nothing, that there won’t be any more pictures inside ever again…Oh God, no! Please no. Anything but that.

(Athol Fugard, The Road to Mecca)

I meditate. I write. I wait for the pictures myself. But suppose they don’t come and I waste my life.

Well, if that’s wasting my life: here and now, I give myself permission to waste my life. To waste colossal amounts of time. To become no-one and nothing, in the face of my society and Steven Pressfield and that sham sibyl I went to when I was vulnerable and in need of answers, I give myself permission to waste my life and let the pictures come, if they have the heart to come.

I find that I can only produce something worthy of publication if I’m riding the crest of a creative wave, if I’m writing with alacrity, a kind of flow. It’s how Van Gogh painted. Look what happened to him. Yeah, and that concerns me. But he had a lust for life that, to me, made up for how his life ended. I write to pay homage to life, to prana, to that source of vitality. Without that source, that prana, life is nothing and writing is nothing.

But don’t you want to make a name for yourself? I’d be lying if I said that superego shit doesn’t keep me up at night, but it’s that superego shit that also militates against prana.

And so I surrender.

I’ll wait…even if all my waiting comes to nothing…and even if I come to nothing.

I once read a quick-sketch bio of Euripides that said, “Euripides went on to live a life of introspection.” And that seems a worthy occupation to me. But where I’m from, anything beyond the barest minimum of introspection is considered a waste of life. And so, if those are the terms, I give myself permission to waste my life. It seems to be what I was called to do.

Kyle Thomas Smith is the author of the novel 85A (Bascom Hill, 2010). He lives in Brooklyn with his husband Julius and his cats, Marquez and Giuseppe.

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