Monday, May 10, 2021

Thoughts from a working man.

"There was nowhere to go but everywhere, so just keep rolling under the stars."  --Jack Kerouac, "On the Road."

I read something last night in a book I am reading called "First Steps: How Upright Walking Made us Human," by Jeremy DeSilva. You can read the review from the failing New York Times, here.

My reading style is structured a lot like my desk was when I had a desk. It's a mess. Things--books, interests, articles, topics, pictures, miscellany--are all scattered willy-nilly. They pile up like ashes in an incinerator or snowflakes in a blizzard.

There is no order or plan. Things bump into each other and like a wayward basketball three-point shot or a knuckleball tossed on a windy day, I have no idea where things are or where they'll bounce next.

That's ok. I've found this is the best way to feed my brain. When I was studying to become an English professor, my course of reading was way more methodical. But even then, I would jump from Defoe to Hardy to Thomas Mann to an Archie comic to The New York Times.

Too often, we forget about serendipity and its value. Put another way, we forget about what we can find when we get lost.

The other night while reading the book I mentioned above, I came upon a great journey.

The story of a paleontologist called Zhaoyu Zhu who discovered in 2018 in China, simple stone tools made by ancient hands 2.1 million years ago.

How the fuck did humans get from South Africa, where our species originated, 9,000 miles to the east, all those millions of years ago? 

There were no horses or animals to ride. No roads or even paths. No sailing ships or sealing wax or cabbages or kings.

Then I read this: "
If early members of the genus Homo migrated east at just one mile per decade starting around 2.2 million years ago, they could have reached China 2.1 million years ago, in plenty of time to leave their stone tools at Shangchen..."

In other words--people move, people wander, people don't sit still, people explore. That is the peopling and the progress of humankind. 

Also, time. We don't have what a thousand generations had. But we have over 8700 hours a year. And if we walk 4/10ths of a mile an hour, we could be in San Francisco by Christmas.

On Saturday, I read an article in "The New York Times" called "The Oldest Productivity Trick Around," written by a teacher at Vassar College called Amitava Kumar. If you can muster up the productivity to read it, you can find it here. Naturally, I recommend it.

Kumar starts with something very simple--something anyone who writes for a living--which should include more people than it does--can and should do.

"Write every day, and walk every day.” The specific instruction was to write 150 words and engage in mindful walking for 10 minutes.

Kumar says, "It was a modest goal, because I wanted to be able to do it myself. I had a toddler and other classes to teach. I had recently come across that famous Annie Dillard line: 'How we spend our days is, of course, how we spend our lives.' It made me realize that too often I spent my days wanting to write and not writing. Again and again, I would note in my journal, “I did not write today.” The idea that this was how I was going to spend my life filled me with despair.

"So I took up the assignment I had given my students. I used a composition notebook, with those black-and-white marbled covers. Having written my daily quota, I would note the date on the notebook’s last page and make a small check mark next to it. Every few days, I would hold up my notebook to show my students the columns of black check marks."

As a person of ambition--not unlike Yon Cassius, with a lean and hungry look--when I set out to become a writer, I had the intention of making something of myself. 

This is part of the long-American tradition of Horatio Alger melded with Budd Schulberg's Sammy Glick. I also remember, as a young man, reading this book by critic and editor Malcolm Cowley, called, appropriately enough, "And I Worked at the Writer's Trade."

For all my faults as a human, all my shortcomings and indiscretions and peccadillos as a husband, father, friend, boss, employee, co-worker, colleague, agency-owner and short-order copy-cook, I don't think I can be disparaged for my work ethic. The keyword in Cowley, in Kumar and in those ancient traveling humans is work.

Work doesn't have to look like an old Lewis Hine photograph. At least it doesn't for me. But all the same, it is work. It's grueling, challenging, and meaningful--no matter how trivial the task--there is meaning in doing it with dignity. 

I don't care if that sentiment is old-fashioned. If we're supposed to, these days, find purpose by switching straws. I find purpose through getting paid. Making clients rich. Caring for my family. Putting money aside for the inevitable rainy day. And something a little extra, so I can leave something behind.

So when I set out to become a writer, I set out to work at it. Novels, I have boxes full. Regrets, too.

I have terabytes of flawed characters and improbable heroines dragging me from various abysses just in the nick of time. I have sheaves and folios of pat endings and hard-boiled patter, that would make George Raft wince.

But what I have most of is the writing in this space. Nearly two-million words of it through over 6000 posts.

A lot of clients come to me because I can write. I can write because I work at it. And because I walk.

I work. I write. I walk.

Every day.

Thank you.

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