I recently entered into an agreement with a friend of mine: Every Friday he texts me and asks whether I wrote on four out of five mornings that week. If I have, nothing happens. If I haven’t, I’m honor-bound, if that’s the right word, to donate $100 to Donald Trump’s presidential campaign.
The specifics of this arrangement were my friend’s sadistic idea, but the motivation behind it was mine. I needed, as people say, to get my butt in the chair. I asked my friend to help me because he’s always been tremendously disciplined. Discipline, he explained to me over the phone, is less a matter of mental strength and more a matter of habit. I may have been wearing a bathrobe during this conversation, pale late-afternoon light falling on my unmade bed.
Habits, especially those formed late, don’t manifest out of sheer will. My friend thought I needed something so repugnant that I couldn’t not fulfill the task I’d given myself. Enter the threat of supporting White America’s corybantic id made flesh.
Certainly there are some artists for whom such an arrangement is unnecessary, for whom putting the butt in the chair (or in the practice space or the studio) is a given. Some of them may have fun working on their art, and may even look forward to it.
I envy them. I belong to the group of people for whom it is always better to have worked than to be working. My writing life, in many ways, has been spent in pursuit of that past tense. I’ve tried many different avenues: I’ve written with friends, written alone, written on drugs, written drunk and edited sober (and vice versa). For a brief spell I believed writing with a hangover was best because, in my dehydrated and vaguely nauseous state, everything seemed unbearable and therefore important. Really I just needed to eat some toast and lie down.
My expertise with regard to artistic practice, in case you can’t already tell, pertains mostly to writers, a group of people who seem to spend far more time complaining about their inability to write than actually writing, a tradition to which I suppose this essay belongs. But I suspect most artists loathe some part—or maybe even all—of their artistic practice.
All artists wish making work was easier, that the work was better, that their mistakes might, just for once, be the last thing they notice instead of the first. Like gamblers, they want to recreate exactly the circumstances that surrounded their last victory and then fall into a miasmatic depression when they cannot. They leave things unfinished because something unfinished can never truly be considered a failure, and failure is terrifying.
I am terrified of failing partly because every failure seems to contain all my preceding failures. Failure has a linear narrative that suggests its perpetual propagation. Success, on the other hand, often feels like an aberration, a statistical outlier. Put in basketball terms, failure seems like it stretches over whole quarters, success over a single fast break. It’s tempting to sit out and wave your towel at other people’s highlights.
And I did, for a long time, sit out. My fear of failure assumed—and still assumes!—the kindly guise of procrastination. It’s so much easier to fold laundry, or wash dishes, or watch people play Super Mario World on Twitch (don’t ask), or look up what autochthonous means or what Mark Hollis is up to these days than it is to work. Procrastination, then, is mental diffraction in the service of fear.
The ridiculous arrangement I’ve made with my friend has helped rein in this fruitless multitasking by putting pressure on the moral center of my brain. Instead of taking the long view on failure, I’m forced to take it one week at a time. It’s working, too—I’ve yet to donate a dime to the Trump’s ongoing George Wallace karaoke set, and on the days when I don’t write in the morning (let’s say I sleep in, or have an early meeting) I feel fidgety and coiled up, like a swimmer missing the pool.
It’d be romantic to say that barreling past my fear of failure and sitting down to work produces a vertiginous energy, something freeing and exhilarating. More often than not, though, working is dull. Small discoveries bring with them minor setbacks. A word I’d fallen in love with—like “corybantic,” let’s say—suddenly feels out of place. I rework, rearrange and generally putter around. But at least now I putter every morning, with my two pieces of toast, my two cups of coffee and the growing sense that fearing failure is just as bad as failing, and so I might as well get comfortable and get to work.