Write As If Posthumously

To the future or to the past, to a time when thought is free, when men are different from one another and do not live alone — to a time when truth exists and what is done cannot be undone. From the age of uniformity, from the age of solitude, from the age of Big Brother, from the age of doublethink — greetings!

He was already dead, [Winston] reflected. It seemed to him that it was only now, when he had begun to be able to formulate his thoughts, that he had taken the decisive step. […] Now that he had recognized himself as a dead man, it became important to stay alive as long as possible.

(Orwell, 1984)

Yesterday’s cyberflânerie through Facebook and Twitter brought up two different but related interviews: a June 2010 talk given by Christopher Hitchens at the New York Public Library on “the duality of his relationship with death, both a fiend of fear and a frontier of freedom”; and a new interview at The 99% with writer, artist, and filmmaker Marjane Satrapi (of Persepolis fame) on the occasion of the screening of her new live-action movie Chicken With Plums (based on her graphic novel).

The money shot from the Hitchens interview (via Maria Popova’s marvellous site Brain Pickings):

I’ve always known that I’m born into a losing struggle… don’t know anyone who’s come out of that a winner. One should try to write as if posthumously. Because then you’re free of all the inhibition that can cluster around even the most independent-minded writer. You don’t really care about public opinion now, you don’t mind about sales, you don’t care what the critics say. You don’t even care what your friends, your peers, your beloved think. You’re free. Death is a very liberating thought.

And the money shot from the Satrapi interview:

Life is too short and we cannot spoil it. I don’t have 300 years in front of me. So I just do the things that I really want to do at the moment because that’s the only way you will do them well. If you don’t believe in yourself, it won’t work. Because creation, you know, it means that you don’t have any salary, you don’t have any retirement, all of that. So if you don’t have the security, at least have the freedom. I go for the freedom.

Both interviews are worth seeing/reading in their entirety, so do please click the links (although the Hitchens NYPL talk is 90 minutes, so you’ll need some uninterrupted time).

These remarkable writers, each remarkable in different ways, have hit upon something that creatives don’t think often enough. We’re typically wrapped up in our projects, and trying to make them (whatever they are: fiction, paintings, music, interpretational dance, etc.) the best we possibly can with the skills and talents that we bring; because of this, we focus very much on the moment, which is very good for completing our short-term goals. But we also have to think long term, very long term, and keep reminding ourselves that, unless the Singularity occurs and we all transcend our physical bodies and ascend into the noösphere, one day we, all of us, will die.

Death is scary, perhaps the scariest thing there is. No one, in real life, has come back from it, and no one has yet escaped it. It is inevitable, and no one can prove what happens after it (anyone who says they can is selling something; I’m a Buddhist, but my nearly 30 years prior to becoming one have instilled in me a strong skepticism of concepts like reincarnation, and I still have a very hard time with it). There are lots of theories, but no one knows, and that great unknowability is perhaps the scariest part of death. The idea can be paralyzing.

But rather than let death get into one’s heart and mind now (why give it the early opportunity?), one can pour one’s entire creative pursuits into the thing that you want to do and what you do well. Why wait? We all know what’s sitting there patiently for us if we wait too long, so it makes the most sense to create the most incredible art that we can while we’re still walking the earth.

At the end of 2011, I quit my teaching job at Hwa Chong Institution. (Well, technically, I quit at the end of September, since I had to give three months’ notice.) What both I and my principal agreed on was that I just was not suited for the high-stress atmosphere that did not give me ample time to pursue my writing. In point of fact, teaching there was creatively stultifying, and I felt myself withering away each day that I tried to hang in there. I greatly enjoyed the classroom interactions with my students, but teaching was actually a tiny percentage of how I spent my time, and all of the many many other duties I was asked to perform drained me of any energy and motivation to write. In the four years that I taught there, work on the Tower novel came to a screeching halt, and only picked up again last year during school breaks and weekends that I wasn’t overwhelmed with marking student essays.

So yeah, I don’t currently have steady employment (although I have a lot of freelancing irons in the fire), but I’m happier than I have been for more than four years. I’m now been making a steady progression on the novel. I was actually able to get 1600 words written today because Janet and Anya fled to my in-laws house in response to maintenance drilling and hammering on our housing block’s roof, which was LOUD, and I myself fled to a nearby café with my laptop. After my work today, the total count for the novel is now 79,400 words; I was strongly tempted to keep going and finish 600 more to bring the total up to an even 80K, but I was already exhausted after the writing I’d gotten done, and I’d stopped in the middle of an exciting scene, one I’m sure to be inspired to continue when I next get back to it, whether tomorrow or in a day or two.

The big reason I stayed at HCI for as long as I did was because of the financial security, but I’ve come to appreciate something Cory Doctorow once said (although I’ve forgotten where; if anyone knows, please be so kind as to enlighten us in the comments below): It’s stupid to work someplace if the only benefit is money, because it’s robbing you of your time here on earth; you can always make more money, but time is the only resource you can’t get back. If creatives remember this, it’ll drive us to make the best of the time we do have, and it’ll lend an urgency to our artistic endeavors that will push us toward greatness.

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Filed under Buddhism, Writing

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