May 8, 2013

Past, Present, Future, Etc. / Excerpt #2


Each of my previous books took me approximately four years to write, but I didn’t decide beforehand they would take four years. I started at the beginning and wrote until they were done. In retrospect, the fact that each took about the same length of time seems to have led me to the conclusion that it takes me four years to write a book. Yet this length of time is so arbitrary, rapidly becoming a self-fulfilling prophecy. If I put my mind to it I could most likely complete a book in a year (I have always written quickly), but I have already decided it takes four so, unconsciously, I stretch it out. What if I were to stretch it out even more?

It is this question of ‘deciding beforehand’ that pushes my mind into so many flavors of chaos. Pop psychology would nail me with fear of commitment. I am at the beginning, full of uncertainty: is writing this book for ten years even a good idea? will it lead toward breakthrough or mediocrity? will I stick with it? am I only over-indulging my most self-indulgent writerly traits? What does it mean to decide beforehand, what exactly am I deciding?

I believe, for most of the history of literature, a writer had every reason to believe it was possible that people would continue to read their books long after they were dead. Today you would be somewhat delusional to assume this with any confidence. It of course may happen, just as anything might happen, but it’s a bit of a long shot. There are so many writers, so many books, so little built to last. We live in a time when the future itself is a long shot, when human extinction, due to environmental collapse, feels like one of many very real dystopic possibilities. There is little well-reasoned confidence that the future will be better than the present, much evidence it will be worse. Of course, the world will still be here in ten years, but these ten years might also be an analogy for 50, 100, 300, 500 years into the future. What would it mean to write a book that you wanted people to read in 300 years? (I suspect it would be only a hairs-breadth away from writing a book you wanted people to read right now.) Today, a feeling of complicit ‘no future’ increases at a steady clip, yet perhaps this opens the possibility for something else. What comes after the future?

It is arguable whether or not it is possible to disentangle the idea of progress from the realities of industrial capitalism. Progress is the idea that things will continue to grow, to improve, etc. As has often been mentioned, we cannot have infinite growth on a finite planet. If we remove the idea of progress from our thinking, how does the future change? In some sense it almost disappears. There is no question that everything repeats, in cycles, over years and over centuries, and yet the idea of progress implicitly averts its gaze from this fact. When something repeats, it is never exactly the same: there is an element of how it was before and an element of difference. Progress focuses on the difference, tradition encourages the similarity. But I find myself imagining something else, more like alchemy, that mixes past and future as if turning lead into gold. It is not my plan to spend ten years writing down my random thoughts, keeping my fingers crossed they might be at least slightly profound. It is my plan, at some point over the next ten years, to start making stuff up, elements of fiction, stories that didn’t happen and didn’t happen to me. I still don’t know why this might be necessary. Is fiction only an insecurity around fact? Or around thought?


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